People pack council for legislative listening sessionWORTHINGTON — At least 60 people overflowed the council chambers at Worthington City Hall Friday during a legislative town hall meeting, filling the approximately 30 chairs, standing in the back of the room and cramming themselves into the stairwell near the door.
By: Kari Lucin, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — At least 60 people overflowed the council chambers at Worthington City Hall Friday during a legislative town hall meeting, filling the approximately 30 chairs, standing in the back of the room and cramming themselves into the stairwell near the door.
The meeting’s topic was the state’s budget shortfall, and the Minnesota state legislators — Republican, Democratic, rural, urban, senators and representatives — gathered to listen to citizens’ opinions, not to talk.
And listen they did, as person after person came forward to ask the 13 lawmakers not to cut education, justice, local government aid, nursing home and hospital funding.
“I feel like a voice in the wilderness while I talk about this,” said Judge Jeffrey Flynn, after describing the need for interpreters in the Nobles County legal system.
Flynn noted court costs would almost certainly increase if budget cuts were made. He said closing the courthouse one day a week, releasing alleged criminals because they could not be brought to court quickly enough to satisfy the law, or keeping kids in foster care longer are all more expensive in the long run than providing adequate funds for the justice system.
“It reminds me of the loaves and fishes, only you don’t have anybody up there who can walk on water — even though some of them think they can,” Flynn said.
So many people attended the meeting that not everyone had a chance to speak to the legislators, who were scheduled to take part in another meeting in the afternoon.
Some citizens offered their contact information and written statements to the legislators as the meeting ended, so they too could voice their concerns and opinions.
Minnesota senators at the session were Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, Dick Cohen, DFLSt. Paul, and Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley.
Minnesota representatives in attendance were Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, Lyndon Carlson Sr., DFLCrystal, Karen Clark, DFLMinneapolis, Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, and Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Funding for education and health care, including nursing homes, seemed to be the topic of the most interest to those speaking to the legislators.
“Remember, (education expenditures) are expenditures that permeate all we do,” said Minnesota West Community and Technical College President Rick Shrubb, explaining how education fuels the economy of southwest Minnesota.
Jennifer Heidelberger, a computer lab assistant at Minnesota West, was emphatic as she stated six of her co-workers had recently been released from their positions due to budget cuts. Heidelberger herself took a 15 percent pay cut.
“I cannot afford a 15 percent pay cut,” Heidelberger told the legislators. “I already work four jobs. I can’t work another job. I can’t fit it in. … I have a daughter who may lose her (MinnesotaCare) benefits. Are you going to take a 15 percent pay cut?”
Jesus Montejo, 11, of Worthington, and Josefina Montejo also asked lawmakers to refrain from making more education cuts.
Irineo Diaz also requested education not be cut any further, citing concern for the future of his 5-year-old son. Diaz added that driving licenses should be available for all drivers in the community.
Paula Hakes, a special education teacher at Jackson County Central High School, criticized state laws requiring her to administer tests to severely handicapped children who must be tube- or spoon-fed.
“I still have to test them, and they still have to pass,” Hakes said, asking legislators how they would do it.
She also asked to remove training requirements for testing the children, because training was only offered in locations distant from JCC and took an entire day, forcing the school to foot the gas bill as well as hiring a substitute to take Hakes’ place for a whole day.
“Nobody in their right mind would envy you or the task ahead of you,” said Michael Katzenmeyer, field representative with Education Minnesota.
Katzenmeyer said education funding has not kept up with inflation since 2003, and referred to four-day school weeks as a Band-aid approach to the funding problem, one of the “desperate measures schools are forced to look into” due to lack of funding.
Health care funding
Staff and administrators from several hospitals and nursing homes pleaded with legislators to avoid cutting from the health care budget, hurting hospitals and care facilities already strapped for cash.
Carolyn Meyeraan, director of nursing at Crossroads Care Center, Worthington, told the lawmakers that often long-term care certified nursing assistants get paid as much as they would get working at McDonald’s, and that nurses working at hospitals were paid $10 an hour more than nursing home nurses.
“We need that gap changed,” Meyeraan said. “We really need you to look at that.”
Steve Perkins, chairman of the Sanford Hospital Luverne Community Advisory Board, said costs from charity care and unpaid bills rose so fast in one year that it would cost every person in Luverne more than $150 apiece to pay for it.
“We just think (health care) is a very high priority,” Perkins said, noting many of the area’s hospitals are critical access hospitals providing emergency and general healthcare that otherwise would not exist.
Mary Ruyter, chief executive officer of Sanford Jackson Medical Center, said the hospital had seen an 88 percent increase in charity cases and a 32 percent increase in bad debt. Ruyter said hospitals cannot sustain operations if their funds are cut.
Ruyter suggested the 2 percent tax on health care providers should be dedicated to health care rather than funneled into the state’s general fund. She also suggested continuing to use state funds to leverage more federal funds into Minnesota.
Lynn Olson, chief executive officer of Sanford Regional Hospital Worthington, asked lawmakers to invest in mental health care in particular, because it provides a return on investment in the form of fewer jail inmates, fewer high school dropouts and fewer cases of homelessness.
Olson described a gap in local services, such as treatment for chemical dependency, warning legislators of the human consequences and high financial cost of not being able to treat chemical dependency locally: “They will end up in jails. They will end up homeless.”
Arlan Swanson, administrator of Maple Lawn Nursing Home in Fulda, said the legislature was reimbursing nursing homes $23 a day per patient less than the cost of care. Swanson said eliminating the equal pay rule, which requires nursing homes to charge private patients the same as patients funded by the state, might help nursing homes defray some expenses.
Pat Stewart, administrator of Cottonwood-Jackson Community Health, suggested the public health model of combining services in several counties could work for other departments as well, and encouraged lawmakers to look into saving money by combining other types of services.
Many city and county government representatives spoke to the state legislators in hopes of avoiding cuts in local government aid and increasing local decisionmaking power.
“We need to eliminate the one-size-fits-all (state) mandates,” said Nobles County Commissioner Diane Thier. “Counties need the flexibility.”
Thier stated local governments are already accountable to their citizens because they would not be re-elected if they made unpopular decisions.
“Stop telling us what we have to do and not giving us the money to do it,” Thier said.
Lyle Ten Haken, a Worthington City Council alderman, asked lawmakers to consider removing the prevailing wage requirement, which requires employees working on state-funded construction projects to be paid wages comparable to wages for similar work done in the area.
Mountain Lake’s city administrator, Wendy Meyer, asked legislators to act quickly and work together in determining what to cut, rather than keeping local governments hanging.
Alan Oberloh, mayor of Worthington, told the lawmakers that eliminating local government aid would increase the disparity between the wealthy parts of Minnesota and the less wealthy areas. Oberloh criticized the state’s attempt to avoid increasing taxes by cutting aid to counties — forcing counties to increase taxes instead.
“We’re not interested in raising local taxes so Governor Pawlenty can say ‘I never increased taxes,’” Oberloh said.
Feb. 24 Correction
Carolyn Meyeraan, director of nursing at Crossroads Care Center, Worthington, said certified nurse’s aides will receive less pay than they would get for working at McDonald’s if nursing home funding isn’t fixed and that hospital nurses get paid $10 an hour more than nurses at nursing homes. The information was incorrect in an article about the legislative listening session.
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