Austerity Forever

Health care took the most visible hits at the Legislature this year, and the future only looks bleaker: Linda Berglin, the only DFLer who stood and fought Pawlenty's cuts.

The 2003 Minnesota legislative session will go down as one in which the state's most vulnerable residents--the impoverished, the working poor, children, immigrants, and the disabled--got the shaft. While it was Governor Tim Pawlenty and his fellow Republicans who led the drive to cut more than $4 billion out of the state's budget, the complicity of the "loyal opposition" in the DFL also played a crucial role in how the books were balanced and where the cuts were made.

In particular, the capitulation by DFL leaders to the Republican demand for "no new taxes"--at a time when public momentum was clearly swinging toward the sort of selective, targeted taxes the DFL had proposed--ensured that a Darwinian philosophy would hold sway at the Capitol.

The tenacious and, given the circumstances, relatively effective fight put up by Senator Linda Berglin (DFL-Minneapolis) during the final weeks of the session belies the contention that Pawlenty's agenda was inevitable. As the longtime Finance Committee Chair of the Senate's Health, the general fund to balance the budget. Her negotiations with the Republican-led House and the Governor's office were undercut by her own party's cave-in on the tax issue, forcing her to overhaul her budget by a half-billion dollars in 24 hours. She battled to convince members of the Pawlenty administration to spend a last-minute infusion of federal money from Washington, some of it specifically earmarked to address the state's health care problems. And even when agreements were reached in principle, Republican leaders reneged on some of the particulars.

Due to either myopia or party loyalty, Berglin was never able to explain why the Democrats didn't follow her lead and oppose the Republicans to the finish. But her example stands out. In the end, Berglin was able to cut the number of people deprived of state-subsidized health insurance from 68,000 to 38,000, and retained the MinnesotaCare program as a separate, dedicated fund after it had been slated for elimination. What follows is her version of what happened during the session's final days, and what it means for Minnesotans in the near future.

Chair of the Senate's Health, Human Services, and Corrections Budget Division, and a co-founder of the state's MinnesotaCare health insurance program, Berglin knows more about the ways and means of our health and human services programs than anyone at the Capitol.

When she discovered that her areas of the budget were the primary targets of Pawlenty's proposed cuts, she cobbled together ways in which her programs could save or generate hundreds of millions of dollars, only to see much of that money diverted intothe general fund to balance the budget. Her negotiations with the Republican-led House and the governor's office were undercut by her own party's cave-in on the tax issue, forcing her to overhaul her budget by a half-billion dollars in 24 hours. She battled to convince members of the Pawlenty administration to spend a last-minute infusion of federal money from Washington, some of it specifically earmarked to address the state's health care problems. And even when agreements were reached in principle, Republican leaders reneged on some of the particulars.

Due to either myopia or party loyalty, Berglin was never able to explain why the Democrats didn't follow her lead and oppose the Republicans to the finish. But her example stands out. In the end, Berglin was able to cut the number of people deprived of state-subsidized health insurance from 68,000 to 38,000, and retained the MinnesotaCare program as a separate, dedicated fund after it had been slated for elimination. What follows is her version of what happened during the session's final days, and what it means for Minnesotans in the near future.

 

City Pages:The position of the Pawlenty administration is that they didn't raise taxes or infringe upon core services during this legislative session. Is that a fair statement?

Linda Berglin: No. We were able to save health care for some people who would have had it eliminated, but there is still a substantial number of people who are going to lose their health care. It will force low-income people into emergency rooms and hospital beds that are not necessary. It will force some elderly people into nursing homes that are not necessary. Those things are going to cost us all, because those people will be using more expensive services when they could have gotten by with less. So I would say they did not get by without hurting core services.

As far as not raising taxes, the health care costs alone are going to cost Hennepin County somewhere between $30-$50 million, and Hennepin County relies on property taxes to pay for those things. So clearly property taxes, which are the least fair, least progressive taxes, are going to go up. Some people, including, I think, Governor Pawlenty, could have labeled the [proposed but unadopted] cigarette tax as a user fee because, in the Senate budget anyway, we were dedicating all of it to health care services. He chose not to do that. But he can raise a moving violation $25 and put that extra money in the general fund. And somehow that's not a tax.

CP:Were you surprised at the extent of the cuts to health care?

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