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Spending reform focus for Chamber


WORTHINGTON -- The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's legislative priorities regarding the state's fiscal policy drew the most discussion at a meeting of Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce members at JBS Tuesday.

"Spending reform is needed now more than ever," said David C. Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber. "... you can't tax your way out of this. Everybody agrees we've got to reform the way we spend money."

Olson said a $4.5 billion shortfall was projected for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, and referred to the rising cost of health care as one of the major factors of the budgetary crunch. He also advocated increasing productivity, reducing overhead expenses at the state level, and doing "what our companies have been doing for years" -- setting priorities and stopping the over-commitment to spending when the state budget is flourishing.

"We don't think it's unfair to ask state and local counties and school boards to do the same things," Olson pointed out. "A lot of them are. We clearly have more to do, at least at the state level."

The Minnesota Chamber's legislative agenda for fiscal policy calls for service redesigns in the areas of health care, teacher training and special education and county services, increasing shared services between local governments and competitively sourcing services such as snow removal.

More controversial is the Minnesota Chamber's advocacy of reducing overhead costs by removing post-retirement health benefits from government employees, offering them private sector-style health insurance and changing defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution pension plans.

Olson did not, however, state that current government employees should have their pension plans changed.

"We're saying for new employees, let's get them on defined contribution instead of defined benefit. We simply can't afford a defined benefit plan for all our public employees," Olson explained. "We can't do it."

Environment and energy

Apart from fiscal policy, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's legislative agenda includes priorities regarding the environment and natural resources, energy, education and workforce development, and health.

The Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce supports the Minnesota Chamber's five legislative priorities.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce did not advocate reducing regulations in environmental permitting, but does want a faster, more precise process, Olson said.

"Speed it up," Olson said. "Don't reduce any of the regulations. Just put some clarity in the whole process."

The Minnesota Chamber will also advocate the discussion of nuclear power as an option.

"The ban on additional nuclear power should be removed," stated one of Olson's handouts, and he clarified "We're not saying (the legislature should) pass a bill that says we're going to build a nuclear plant tomorrow."

The Minnesota Chamber wants to consider nuclear power for the base load of electricity because people are concerned about utilizing coal and about the reliability of wind and solar energy.

Health, education and workforce development

In the area of health, the Minnesota Chamber will attempt to ensure the 2008 state health care reforms are implemented, advance a policy for long-term care reform and continue to weigh in on the federal health care debate.

With regard to education reforms, the Minnesota Chamber advocates alternative teacher certification, which would allow some college graduates and professionals to gain teacher accreditation. The Chamber also proposes keeping reading GRAD tests intact rather than watering them down and encouraging schools to share services.

Teacher tenure is another issue the Chamber would like to debate.

"How many of you, after a certain amount of years in your job, are guaranteed that job for the rest of your life?" Olson asked. "I've heard arguments on both sides of tenure, but I think we ought to have that debate."