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Budget backlash - Legislators get an earful at town hall meeting

Standing just behind the speaker's podium Friday evening in the council chambers of Alexandria City Hall, Alexandria resident Brad Holman waited for his turn to talk.

And waited.

After more than two hours, he got his chance: two minutes to tell nine state legislators how he thought they should try to tackle a looming $4.8 billion deficit facing Minnesota in the next two years - a figure that could balloon to an estimated $7 billion when a new economic forecast is released next week.

"People have said this budget crisis is a great opportunity to downsize government," said Holman, a self-described low-income food-service industry worker who is currently unemployed.

"Unforunately, I'm one of the people being downsized."

When he was working, Holman said he depended on MinnesotaCare, a state-subsidized health insurance program that provides coverage to childless adults who could not otherwise afford insurance.

Holman said he is worried about the impact of proposed cuts to the program, which were included in a set of recommendations released by Governor Tim Pawlenty last month to help balance the state's books over the upcoming biennium.

His was one of many concerns expressed by dozens of speakers Friday evening at a town hall-style meeting put on by Minnesota legislators and hosted by the city of Alexandria.

More than 350 people crammed into city hall's council chambers to attend the event organized by state DFLers, which they say is part of a bi-partisan statewide tour meant to solicit ideas from everyday citizens about how to solve the state's budget crisis but has been decried by some Republicans as a political stunt and excuse to bash the governor's proposal.

In one of the few actually bi-partisan forums held so far, nine state lawmakers - including local legislators Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, Representative Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, and Representative Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie - listened for two-and-a-half hours as dozens of the more than 70 area residents who signed up to speak told the state's decision-makers how to do their jobs.

Those who spoke - and their concerns - included:

•Seventh District Court Judge Ann Carrott, who opposed further cuts to Minnesota courts.

•Alexandria resident Alan Roebke, who proposed slashing state subsidies for ethanol, "which doesn't work, is not effective and is a waste of money."

•Alexandria Mayor Dan Ness, who criticized proposed cuts in aid provided by the state to outstate Minnesota cities.

•Alexandria Technical College Vice President Jan Doebbert, who expressed concern about the impact decreased funding for higher education might have on Minnesota students, colleges and its economy, in the long run.

•Fat Daddy's Bar and Grill owner Charlie Meyer, who said the state should loosen current gambling restrictions to raise more revenue.

•Douglas County Hospital Administrator Bill Flaig, who opposed suggested cuts to Minnesota hospitals, which he called disproportionate and unwise, given that in order to receive Medicaid funding, the federal government requires states to match those funds.

•Local Salvation Army volunteer Jennie Hevern, who said her organization is currently serving more people than ever before because of the severe nationwide recession, including people who had, until now, never needed help.

"This problem will keep getting worse," Hevern said. "I just ask that you be careful what you do to the weakest of the weak."

Attending his sixth town hall-style event that day on Friday, Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen said after the Alexandria meeting that he's been hearing essentially the same message from constituents all over the region.

"People are just concerned," he said. "They're just wondering how this deficit's going to be resolved."

Ingebrigtsen said it's too early to tell yet exactly how Minnesota will be able to solve the budget crisis, but he's certain that, no matter what, the state needs to reduce spending.

"We've got to go line-by-line and we've got to look at cutting service, and that's people," he said. "We do ask now, 'Do you want us to raise taxes?' There are not very many on that list."

Brad Holman is one of them.

"I would encourage you to raise income taxes," he told the state legislators. "It takes courage to say, 'I'm sorry but those of us who are financially stable need to pay a little more.' "