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Rep. Colin Peterson (right), along with state Sens. Keith Langseth (center) and Rod Skoe said that budget cuts are only going to get worse during a town hall meeting Saturday in Detroit Lakes. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

DFLers say tax hikes needed to balance budget -- or rural Minnesota will suffer

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Detroit Lakes Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

DETROIT LAKES - A few dozen people came out Saturday evening to hear State Senators Keith Langseth and Rod Skoe, State Rep. Paul Marquart and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson hand out some bad news -- budget cuts are only going to get worse. But, that's what needs to be done to balance the budget.

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"If you don't like cuts, you're not going to like it. If you don't like tax increases, you're not going to like it," Marquart said in his opening remarks in Detroit Lakes City Hall.

That sentiment was echoed by all the lawmakers. But, they added, they are fighting for rural Minnesota.

"I am determined to do whatever I can," Peterson said. "I'm not going to be very popular. I'm already not very popular on Wall Street."

Without passing the federal stimulus bill, Peterson added, things could have been much worse for the states.

"We're making some difference, I think. The state won't have to cut as much as if the stimulus wouldn't have passed," he said.

The nation's projected deficit for the year is estimated at $1.75 trillion, an unfathomable number to some. The goal -- as stated by U.S. President Barack Obama -- is to lower the deficit down to $535 billion over the next five years or so though.

"Some say it's not realistic. We'll see," Peterson said.

He added that there could be billions more given out in bank bailouts and a few more stimulus packages in the next few years to boost the economy. Although, he added, he can't be sure those actions will solve the problem either.

On the state level, Skoe said Minnesota is looking at a $6.4 billion deficit.

"We want to solve this now so it's structurally balanced going into the future," he said.

That was also echoed by the other legislators, who said they are not just looking to solve today's problems, but would like to solve the problem so it quits cropping up every two years.

"The main thing is, we don't patch up this biennium and push it to the next biennium," Langseth said of the two-year budget periods.

"Hopefully when it's said and done, we have a budget that's balanced, not just these two years, but into the future," Skoe added.

But obtaining that balanced budget will require cuts -- a likely 7 percent cut across the board, including K-12 education, he said

"It's going to be hard," Skoe said. "It's going to be very hard."

But, he added, if the state doesn't implement cuts and increase taxes, there's not much else it can do. There needs to be $2.4 billion in cuts made, and about $2 billion in new revenues, mainly income tax increases on the wealthy.

That puts the DFL-dominated Legislature at loggerheads with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who wants to balance the budget through cuts alone.

Cities have already seen cuts in their local government aid. Marquart said without new revenue, the governor would "cut it all and just decimate rural Minnesota. Or, we can be honest and look at new taxes."

Citizens have also seen a large increase -- 70 percent actually -- in property taxes over the last several years, which falls hardest on seniors, farmers and young families, Marquart said. For the first time in Minnesota history, he added, property taxes have surpassed income taxes.

Langseth talked about some specific bonding projects he has worked on, mainly for universities and for flood control.

The "fixing up" funds he bonded for include work to be done on Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses, which will in turn put construction workers to work. He is also asking $26 million be dedicated to areas in northwest Minnesota for flood control.

"I want to finish that before I leave here and have those places protected," he said. "That is the legacy I want to leave. I will stick around until I get that done."

Citizen concerns

Concerns from audience members came in the form of lifting local levy limits, reimbursement for medical services, assessor accountability, property taxes, voting identification and the need to watch earmarked projects sneaking into bonding packages.

Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk asked legislators if lifting local levy limits was an option. Gov. Pawlenty set levy limits and planned more LGA to cities to make up for it. Marquart said since that LGA was cut, in all fairness, cities should be able to levy for more local taxes to make up for that shortfall, but the limit hasn't been lifted yet.

A Lakes Homes representative said she is concerned about the cuts and how they are affecting her staff and clients, who have developmental disabilities. Mainly, gloves are no longer covered under insurance, and "I don't understand the wisdom of that decision," she said.

If she and staff were to not use gloves, it would increase the risk of infections to both staff and patients.

"How do I provide a quality of care with cuts," she continued. "I think it's obligated" to provide that high level of care.

Skoe agreed that cuts to long-term care facilities have been harmful as well. "I couldn't see how we could do that level of cuts" to those facilities, he said. But, even long-term care facilities aren't protected during these cuts.

Another matter centered on assessing property.

"I don't understand why legislation doesn't have any accountability for assessing," one audience member said.

Marquart explained that there have been steps taken in the last couple years to show that accountability, and Skoe added that there is more to come.

New in the last two years, Marquart listed, are that assessors must attend an ethics training course, the county board of equalization has to be open one night, field cards must be provided, and if at least five property owners have a concern about their assessor, they can appeal to the Department of Revenue.

Skoe added that he would be attending a meeting in a few days on the Green Acres program, and one of the points to be discussed was the state auditor's review of assessor practices.

"We're also concerned with uniformity across the state," he said.

Audience member John Moberg showed the legislators a map showing where Minnesota welfare money is being spent throughout the United States.

"I was surprised to see how the card is being used," Marquart admitted, referring to cards that those on welfare receive, which are similar to debit cards, and can be used in other states, but that Minnesota is paying for.

"These people are being caught and are being prosecuted," he added.

The map shows that Minnesota welfare money is being spent in every state in the United States, from $14,810 in Alaska to $26,644 in Maine, $387,066 in Texas to $2.4 million in Wisconsin. Marquart said it's hard to know if those transactions are people traveling though a state or people who are scamming the welfare system.

One boisterous man in the audience asked Marquart specifically why he would vote against requiring people to produce a photo ID when voting, accusing Marquart of allowing illegal aliens to vote in Minnesota.

Marquart said he opposed the photo ID requirement because many senior citizens can't drive and therefore would have difficulty finding a photo ID. Several seniors in the audience agreed that it would be difficult.

Since voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in Minnesota, "It is a solution looking for a problem," Marquart said.

The man pressed on that there are many illegal immigrants voting.

"I don't know how they would," Langseth retorted.

"I do believe there's room for corruption" in the voting system, the audience member said.

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