Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Normandale visited, State budget reviewed, Grim unemployment news, Education budget discussed

Senate Views Normandale Community College
The Senate Higher Education Committee took a site visit to Normandale Community College yesterday. During the visit, President Joe Opatz shared that the demographics of the students are changing. "We are now serving nearly one-quarter minority students," he said. The committee also toured the dental hygiene and nursing facilities. On Thursday evenings, Normandale dental students and dentists serve community members in need of dental care. "People will drive hours to get treatment," said Colleen Brickle, Interim Dean of Health Sciences. Committee members also had an opportunity to learn about the science labs at Normandale Community College. The labs are different than most - they are open all day for students to drop in and labs of different courses are located in the same room. This gives students a chance to learn about different science classes and collaborate on projects. It may also peak students’ interest to take different science courses in the future. The trip to Normandale was one of the many site visits that the Senate Higher Education Committee will take this session; there are plans of going to a private college, a for profit institute and the University of Minnesota.

Recommendation from State Budget Trends Study Commission
A joint meeting of the House Taxes and Finance committees heard recommendations from the State Budget Trends Study Commission yesterday. The commission, which was established in the 2007 omnibus state government finance law, said Minnesota needs to change the way it handles its money if it wants to stop the roller coaster of deficits and surpluses.

The purpose of the 15-member commission, appointed by the governor, House and Senate, was to study "the implications of state demographic trends for future state budget conditions, including both expected revenue collections and spending for state government services and local services supported by state revenues.

Some recommendations include:
• having a budget reserve of at least $2.1 billion, based on the current state budget;
• creating a structurally balanced budget for the current and following biennium; and
• releasing a demographic forecast at the start of each biennium.

House Committee Hears Grim Unemployment News
Members of the House Bioscience and Workforce Development Policy and Oversight Division heard from Steve Hine, labor market information director at the Department of Employment and Economic Development, about employment predictions for the state of Minnesota. Hine said Minnesota will likely lose an additional 61,000 jobs by the end of this year, and may not see any employment gains until early 2010.

Hine said the state is likely to reach all-time highs in its total number of unemployed workers, as many as 260,000 by the end of 2009, and Minnesota's employment rate has recently been lagging behind the national average.

"There's a lot of speculation as to whether we've lost our luster here," Hine said, noting that the state's labor market, prior to 2006, has historically performed as good as or better than the United States as a whole.

Committee members also learned from Hine that the state faces a completely different set of challenges in the long-term, including much slower growth in the state's labor force, labor shortages and rapidly shifting worker demographics.

Senate Discusses Education Budget
The Senate E-12 Education Budget and Policy Division met yesterday for an open discussion on education finance. Eric Nauman, fiscal analyst for the Senate, presented information showing the E-12 education budget shortfall accounting for over one fourth of the state's total projected $4.8 billion deficit.

"Balancing the education budget is possible," said Nauman, "but that could mean raising property taxes to pay for the shortfall, or possibly shifting payback schedules to school districts. Neither of these options would be an ideal fix for the budget." Nauman said that a number of groups would be unhappy about a property tax increase and a possible payback shift could cause some school districts to have to borrow state money to cover their own budgets. Finally, Nauman said that if an agreement wasn't reached on a resolution to balancing the education budget, the division would have to start looking into making cuts.

Other members of the committee suggested such things as shortening the length of the academic year, shortening the school week and consolidating smaller school districts as possible ways to cut costs from the education budget. Before adjourning, Chair LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said the division would continue their discussion of the education budget shortfall at future hearings.

At the Capitol:
Legislative schedules are available for the House and Senate.

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