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Paul Gazelka

Budget deficit weighs on area lawmakers

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Area lawmakers who are set to begin the 2011 legislative session on Tuesday are all focused on the state's $6.2 billion budget shortfall, but there are differences about how to fix the problem.

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Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, said last week taxes might have to be raised in order to fill the gap. Republican lawmakers insist it should be done without a tax hike. Ward ranked fixing the budget deficit as the No. 2 priority, just after retaining and creating jobs in District 12 and in the state.

"No. 2 will be tackling the budget deficit and doing it in a way that will not harm the citizens of the state of Minnesota," Ward said.

While being fiscally responsible, Ward said the state had to be careful to not to make too big of a dent in needed public services such as public safety and infrastructure. He also wanted to see education enhanced so the state has an educated work force.

"We need to have a balanced approach to solving the budget," Ward said. "Yes, we're going to make cuts. Yes, we're going to do reform and redesign."

However, Ward said that some sort of revenue or fee increases might have to be part of the solution.

Area Republican legislators, including three who will be newcomers in their respective legislative bodies, said they don't want to raise taxes.

Sen.-elect Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, described the goal of balancing the budget without raising taxes or raising fees as a monumental task.

"We know we are going to be making difficult decisions," Gazelka said. "The issue is: 'Are we able to slow the growth of government?'"

 Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said he wouldn't increase taxes but wouldn't automatically object to raising attorneys' license fees or marriage license fees.

"Every teeny little bit would help the budget," Howes said. "I don't mind (raising fees) as long as we don't get nuts about it."

Rep.-elect Mike LeMieur, R-Little Falls, said he couldn't rule anything out but he would do his best to not balance the budget by raising taxes.

"It's going to be a big mountain to climb," he said of the deficit.

Like Ward, Sen.-elect John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said encouraging job growth was his top priority. That will entail fixing the state's onerous permitting process and regulations so the state is more business friendly. He warned, however, that there's no quick-fix solution.

"It could absolutely take a number of years," he said.

Carlson, who owns an insurance agency, said he would like to fix the budget shortfall without increasing taxes. He said he believes lawmakers can cull through the various state departments and weed out programs that the state may not need as badly as it formerly did. As a new senator he will focus on getting up to speed with the work of his committees.

"There's so much to learn," Carlson said. "I think the biggest thing I can do is understand that I need to learn a lot. I need to do a lot of research."

The new senator will serve on the Government Innovation and Veterans Committee, the Higher Education Committee, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Capital Investment Committee.

Gazelka said he would like to limit the welfare benefits people can obtain when they move to Minnesota, but that might require a court challenge of federal rules. He said it's important to create private sector jobs and listed three peripheral issues: a Defense of Marriage Act, a constitutional amendment requiring a 60 percent legislative majority for tax increases and a photo ID requirement for voters.

Gazelka's committee assignments include Government Innovations and Veterans, Environment, Transportation and Commerce, a panel where he has been named vice chair.

Ward said the two parties are going to have to work together because the tasks they face are not going to be easy. He said he favored continuing tax credits for small businesses that hire new employees.

LeMieur said he wants to create jobs with tax incentives and by streamlining the state permitting process. He also called for the repeal of the state ban on nuclear plants. He also wants to implement alternative teaching licenses, evaluate teacher tenure performance, reduce mandates on school districts and address the metro/urban disparity on school aid.

The House newcomer has been appointed to Veterans Division Committee, Agriculture Policy and Finance Committee, Jobs and Economic Development Committee and Property Tax Division Committee.

Howes predicted Republicans and Democrats would stand firm in their budget positions, with the result being a special session. The Walker legislator said he expected Gov.-elect Mark Dayton to propose a large bonding bill, but stated he would prefer a more modest one for immediate-start projects for MnSCU schools or state parks.

Carlson said he would work to make the permitting and regulator process more efficient. He said he was anxious to get started in his new job.

"I guess the big thing is my attitude has always been, usually with a large challenge is a large opportunity."

MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5860.

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