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At Issue: Tightening the belt

Published (4/24/2009)
By Nick Busse
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Sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the omnibus state government finance bill would cut legislative spending and reduce appropriations to the state’s constitutional officers and state agancies. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)A funding package that includes budget cuts and provisions to strengthen accountability in state government was still being debated at 9 p.m. April 23 when this issue of Session Weekly went to press.

HF1781/SF2082*, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls) and Sen. Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley), comprises the omnibus state government finance bill. It contains $628.8 million in funding for the Legislature, the state’s constitutional offices and various state government agencies for the 2010–2011 biennium.

If passed by the House, the bill will go back to the Senate, where a different version passed 59-6 on April 20. A conference committee is expected to work out the differences.

The bill would cut the Legislature’s budget, although not quite as deeply as is recommended by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in his budget request. It proposes a 5 percent cut for the Senate, a 3 percent cut for the House and a 2.9 percent cut for the Legislative Coordinating Commission. Pawlenty has called for cuts of 5.7 percent, 5.8 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.

The governor’s office would actually see a funding increase of 14.7 percent under the bill’s provisions; however, this is due to a new policy proposed in the bill that personnel costs for the governor’s office may not be attributed to other executive-branch agencies. The governor’s actual operating budget would be reduced by 3 percent; Pawlenty asked for a 5.9 percent cut. In addition, a provision asks Pawlenty to cut executive-branch administrative costs by $16.5 million — an amount equal to roughly all the governor’s deputy and assistant commissioners.

The bill would also cut, in whole or in part, two of the governor’s biggest technology initiatives. One item, a $16.5 million request to consolidate state agencies’ data centers into a single facility, has been completely cut from the bill. Another, an $18 million request to fund lease-purchase financing to replace the state’s outdated accounting and procurement system, would be delayed by one year. The effect would be to save the state $9 million in the next biennium. The bill does include a request by Pawlenty to impose a temporary 10 percent surcharge on business, commercial and professional licenses to fund a new statewide electronic licensing system.

The Attorney General and Secretary of State offices would get funding reductions of 3.4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, while the Office of the State Auditor would see a 3.7 percent increase to help monitor federal stimulus spending. Pawlenty recommended deeper cuts to all three offices.

The Department of Administration, Department of Revenue and Minnesota Management and Budget would all see 5 percent reductions in their operating budgets. The bill would also fund a number of smaller state agencies, including the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, the Office of Administrative Hearings, the Council on Black Minnesotans and the Council on Chicano-Latino Affairs. Most of the smaller agencies would see budget cuts of approximately 5 percent as well.

Policy provisions

The bill includes a number of policy changes designed to increase accountability and improve financial management at state agencies.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley) and Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina) dealing with agencies’ internal controls have been incorporated into the bill.

The provisions would ask MMB to take a proactive role in ensuring proper financial management at state agencies, expand the duties of the Legislative Audit Commission and establish an independent Financial Controls Council for the state. In addition, a proposal sponsored by Winkler that would make misappropriation of state funds a crime is included in the bill.

The bill also includes the language from HF8, the proposed Minnesota False Claims Act. Sponsored by Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), the provision would impose penalties on those who make false claims to the state, and establish protections for whistleblowers. The proposal is still moving forward as a separate bill in the House, and is scheduled to be addressed April 28 by the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division and April 30 by the House Finance Committee.

A Kahn-sponsored provision would grant domestic partner benefits to state employees. Any insurance, health, medical and dental benefits available to spouses of state employees would also be available to any adult with whom a state employee lives and shares common domestic responsibilities.

Business owners who are disabled veterans would be given special preference for state contracts, under a provision sponsored by Rep. Jerry Newton (DFL-Coon Rapids). The provision would give veterans with service-related disabilities up to a 6 percent preference in bidding.

Several provisions in the bill are designed to make state Web sites more accessible and more useful to the public. One, taken from a bill sponsored by Winkler, would require the state to create a new Web site with a searchable database of state contracts and expenditures, including specific features. Another, taken from a bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Gardner (DFL-Shoreview), would require that any new accounting software for the state include an application programming interface (API) that allows the public to access data in an open format. Finally, a provision sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Kalin (DFL-North Branch) would require state agency Web sites to prominently display contact information including a phone number “that will be answered by a human being.”

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