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Published March 29, 2011, 05:23 PM

MN Lawmakers Pass Cuts on Parks, Safety, Colleges

Spending cuts to Minnesota public colleges, crime prevention initiatives, natural resources and environmental programs carried the day at the Capitol Tuesday.

By: Patrick Condon, Martiga Lohn, Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Spending cuts to Minnesota public colleges, crime prevention initiatives, natural resources and environmental programs carried the day at the Capitol Tuesday, as Republican majorities moved forward over nearly unified Democratic opposition to a plan to erase a $5 billion deficit without raising state taxes.

Among the stakes for Minnesota residents were whether public colleges and universities would have to eliminate programs and lay off employees, whether campers would have a harder time finding their way into state parks, and whether the state would have a tougher time investigating claims of discrimination.

The GOP-controlled House and Senate each passed a series of budget bills, with the House approving its higher education and environment and natural resources bills and the Senate passing its own higher education and environment and natural resources bill as well as one for judiciary and public safety.

Still pending Tuesday evening was a House debate on a K-12 funding package that would bump up basic funding for schools while eliminating racial integration aid, replacing the current teacher tenure system with an evaluation-based approach and curbing teacher bargaining rights. That debate was expected to stretch late into the night.

Despite the long hours taken up by floor debates, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has warned he won't sign the bills without an overall agreement on state taxes and spending. Dayton wants to balance the budget by raising taxes on those with the highest incomes.

"I'm still optimistic that we'll have a constructive resolution," Dayton said Tuesday. "We'll have a lot to discuss, obviously, but that's the nature of the process."

The House K-12 bill could be a flashpoint with Dayton. House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, declined to give any hints about where he planned to yield in negotiations with the administration. But he predicted an eventual agreement with the governor on major policy changes — even though Dayton told top lawmakers in a Tuesday letter that he would reject finance bills with objectionable pieces of policy.

"There's going to be a lot of good stuff that we're going to do in the education reform area," Garofalo told reporters before the session.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said she was confident after a meeting with the governor that he would reject the House bill. She said the integration cut and a provision capping aid for special education were "the two worst things in the bill."

"It's an ugly and mean-spirited bill," she said. "The governor thinks this is an ugly and mean-spirited bill, too."

Dayton said he was concerned about how money was being shuffled, resulting in losses in some districts and gains in others.

"I don't know if that one is redeemable or not," the governor told reporters.

The House and Senate higher education packages, while not identical, both slice into aid to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. The Senate bill passed by a vote of 37-27 while the House version passed 69-60.

University of Minnesota officials predicted the Senate bill would cost them about $243 million in state aid, a bigger cut than the House or Dayton sought. Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, warned that the reduction would be "economically devastating" to the university and reverberate throughout the state's economy.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, acknowledged that potential cuts to individual campuses "sound like large amounts of money" but said they were relatively small in relation to the entire campus budgets. Fischbach said the reductions "will not cut so deep that they put the universities out of business," dismissing comments by Democrats that the proposal could force some smaller state schools to close.

The House bill would cut about $320 million from both systems combined.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said the cuts were deep but the bill aimed to protect students by preserving student aid funds and capping tuition increases. The House bill would limit tuition hikes to 2 percent at two-year MnSCU campuses, 4 percent at four-year MnSCU institutions and about 5 percent for University of Minnesota undergraduates.

"If we'd had everything perfect, this bill probably would have looked different," Nornes said. "But under the circumstances, this is the best we could do."

Democrats pointed out the higher education bills would take the public university system back to 1998 funding levels, and likely mean large-scale layoffs in college towns.

"These are middle class jobs, good-paying jobs," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

Environment spending packages passed both houses, clearing the Senate 37-28 and the House 72-57.

House members removed a provision that would have allowed commercial logging in two state parks. Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr opposed the timber harvesting in a letter to legislators that cited a state law protecting state parks "without impairment for the enjoyment and recreation of future generations." The provision wasn't part of the Senate bill.

The Senate also approved a public safety budget bill that would preserve money for state courts while reducing crime-prevention grants and the budget for the state's anti-discrimination office. The vote was 36-28. The bill would halve the budget for the Department of Human Rights, which could hinder its ability to investigate complaints of discrimination at restaurants, apartments and other businesses. Grants for community programs aimed at preventing crime would drop by a few million dollars.

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Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.

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