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Public interest in state budget deficit low

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators face a massive state budget deficit, with many program cuts expected, yet many report public interest is surprisingly low.

Many legislators say they are not hearing much public reaction, and some legislators plan town hall meetings to solicit the public's concerns and hear ideas and criticism.

"The public isn't as engaged as we'd like," Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, said.

The public knows about national economic problems, Foley said, but not as much about state ones. People raise concerns only when they are personally affected, Foley said.

"It's incredible how people get numb" to budget news, he said.

Legislators must pass a two-year budget that probably will spend about $33 billion, a task made more difficult by what many predict will be a $7 billion revenue shortfall due to the national recession.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed budget calls for cuts in most state programs, but many lawmakers say that has not resulted in the public complaining.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said the public has yet to catch on to the problem.

People are more concerned than normal because the budget problems are more severe than normal, Langseth said. "But they don't understand how big a problem it is."

Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, placed Local Government Aid - state money sent to cities -- on the list of top concerns. Vickerman plans a series of town meetings to hear public comments.

"Instead of thinking gloom and doom, let's look for the silver lining," he said. He wants his town meetings to be positive, "not blast the governor's budget."

Vickerman asks people "where can you cut? There's going to be serious pain, but pain for all of us."

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he only gets five to 10 questions a day from his nearly 37,000 constituents.

On the other hand, Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said he spends half his day meeting with people who have advice on the governor's plans, telling personal stories and asking a few questions.

Anzelc said the biggest concerns his people have are with public school education, health and human services and items affecting rural Minnesota.

"The people have figured out that the governor's proposals will do more damage to rural Minnesota," Anzelc said.

Anzelc estimated that 60 percent of his public contacts come from regular citizens, although the line between citizens and special interests is blurring.

"A nursing home administrator is not a special interest, but rather a special person," he said.

Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, said that most of the people he speaks with at his hardware store in Perham say they agree with some of the cuts, but do not want their taxes raised.

"The issues have changed since the election in November," Murdock said, away from societal problems to money issues. Murdock likens his constituents' concerns with the budget issues now to the changes to the "green acres" property tax law last year, a change that increased tax on unproductive land.


Parthun, a University of Minnesota journalism student, reports for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau this semester.