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Objection overruled: State court workers, public defenders, hit hard by budget cuts

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Objection overruled: State court workers, public defenders, hit hard by budget cuts
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ST. PAUL - Minnesota's top politicians and the state's most experienced policymakers worked late into the night and arose early day after day for much of the past month, successfully filling a $935 million hole in the state budget.


They argued, cajoled and, in the end, compromised.

They succeeded in plugging the budget gap, but at the same time they succeeded in crafting a budget deal that will affect relatively few Minnesotans.

To be sure, a few people will notice cuts. Those with court cases may experience delays. Some welfare recipients may see a bit less money. Pilots may not be able to use new navigation equipment and airports such as in Duluth may need to delay expansion projects.

But overall, the budget-balancing deal worked out a week ago generally will slip by undetected.

"I don't think the public on a day-to-day basis will notice any difference in state government," said Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson, one of the key figures in negotiations that led to a legislative session-ending deal. "I would be surprised if they did."

The Pawlenty administration counts $130 million in actual program cuts, while Democrats include other things in their figure, making it $355 million. Either way, the cuts are peanuts compared to the state's nearly $35 billion, two-year budget.

The deficit mostly was fixed by using money sitting in various state accounts and closing a loophole that allowed some multi-national corporations to escape Minnesota taxes.

Policymakers such as Hanson still are calculating the legislative session's impact, but one thing is known for sure - even with budget cuts more money will be spent in the current two-year budget than the one that ended June 30, 2007.

Many departments were handed cuts of 2 percent to 4 percent.

Much of that money will come from not filling open positions, including those of state workers who retire. That is how Hanson plans to fund most of the $800,000 in cuts from his department.

"We are going to be more efficient," Hanson said.

But those in state's court system say they already are efficient and a 1.3 percent, $4 million, cut they received will hurt.

State Court Administrator Sue Dosal said the new cut comes after the judicial branch was $13 million short entering the legislative session. The courts sought more money avoid cutting back on service and closing courthouses.

"We were in a world of hurt, and of course we did not get any new money," Dosal said. "That leaves us with big issues here to deal with."

The judicial branch will consider staff cuts and continued reduction of services. Minnesotans could see the effects in a number of ways, she said.

Payments to jurors statewide may be reduced. Funding for drug courts could be cut. Many cases could move slower.

If the funding crunch delays criminal cases, it could affect counties' jail costs.

"It'll have a ripple effect on lots of different places," Dosal said.

For now, however, the judicial branch does not expect to close any courthouses, as had been considered. Still, court service counter hours could be cut.

Dosal said the judicial branch appreciated that it received less than half the spending cuts Gov. Tim Pawlenty originally proposed, but said the cuts could worsen in coming years.

Public defenders could face more of a problem than the courts themselves, with the loss of $1.5 million raising the possibility of eliminating 68 of the attorneys who defend Minnesotans who cannot pay for their own attorneys.

Budget negotiators took $15 million out of an account for airport improvements.

Without state money available, facilities such as the Duluth International Airport could lose federal matching funds for airport improvements and expansions. And an anticipated new navigation system at Bemidji probably will be delayed.