by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Rep. Jim Abeler jokes one thing that’s nice about his new State Office Building digs is that there’s room enough for protesters outside.
The quip may not be without relevance.
Abeler is the new chairman of the House Health and Human Services (HHS) Finance Committee.
A chiropractor by profession, the seven-term Republican takes control of the committee at an exacting moment.
Abeler views lawmakers this coming legislative session as wrestling budgetary challenges as tough as any faced by Minnesota elected officials.
“The credit card payments are all coming due on my watch. And there’s no more refinancing mechanisms available,” said Abeler, lawmaker from Anoka.
“And so decisions that have been deferred are now coming to land on my watch,” Abeler said.
General fund spending of $12 billion
Abeler oversees a health care realm with a projected total general fund spending just shy of $12 billion for this coming two-year spending cycle — an amount reflecting about 31 percent of the state’s total general fund spending.
Only the K–12 education pie chart slice is bigger.
HHS provides services to some of the most fragile and vulnerable people in Minnesota.
In recent sessions, the HHS funding debate has spawned dozens of press conferences and rallies, filled the Capitol corridors with advocates and health care professionals.
But with Minnesota facing a projected $6 billion budget deficit, Abeler acknowledges the HHS budget will be a hunting ground for spending reductions.
House leaders will look to trim more than $1 billion, Abeler believes.
“At the end, we’ll be hopefully protecting nursing homes, protecting care for the disabled, and keeping a safety net in intact,” said Abeler.
“We have to sit down and debate amongst ourselves what’s essential, what’s important, and what’s just nice to do,” he said. “If people would say, ‘That would be nice,’ then we’re not going to do that,” said Abeler.
Federal health care bill not a lifeline
The recent federal health care bill is not a lifeline, Abeler explained.
Indeed, Abeler is sharply critical, arguing the historic legislation is enfeebled by the lack of bipartisan support, undoes state health care reforms already in place, and makes promises the deficit-plagued federal government cannot keep.
“The money that’s promised in that bill to Minnesota over the next four and a half years, four and half billion dollars of federal money coming our way, is mythical,” said Abeler.
“I don’t believe the federal government will be able to uphold their end of the bargain,” he said.
“We’re going to build a program and create expectations on people we care deeply about, and be unable to serve them,” said Abeler.
One of the celebrated Override Six — a group of House Republican who voted to override Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation funding bill containing tax increases — Abeler indicates that there’ll be no crossing party lines now on taxes.
No oath required
“There was no oath or anything I had to take,” Abeler quipped about gaining his chairmanships.
His override vote reflected the views of his district, just as his refusal to raise taxes now does the same, Abeler explained.
“It’s no stretch for me these days, because no one has any money,” said Abeler. “I think the average person in my district would say, ‘ I think you’re on to something there,’” said Abeler with a smile.
Abeler styles himself as a bridge builder. The view is not his alone.
Recently on the House floor one House Democrat indicated Abeler’s willingness to reach across the aisle was legendary.
“I hope he brings that to the chair,” said Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, of a cooperative spirit.
Murphy, active in the health-care debate, indicated some older common ground exists for Democrats and Republicans to discuss but that more recent happenings, such as the federal health care bill, have been polarizing.
She questions whether the HHS can be balanced without additional revenue.
Although Abeler doesn’t recall ever meeting Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton, he has worked with Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon on health-care issues, he said.
“I think she understands the math,” he said.
The House health care committees — there’s also a reform committee — plan a joint hearing immediately at the start of the legislative session.
No time to squabble
“We simply don’t have time to be squabbling,” Abeler said of Republican and Democrat committee members getting along.
Abeler plans to form two- to three-member groups within his committee, tasked with drilling down into particular HHS spending areas to look for better efficiencies and savings.
Abeler is wary of the use of the word “cuts” in describing potential HHS spending reductions.
In general, HHS spending will continue to grow, Abeler explained.
But growth will be single-digit instead of projected double-digit, he explained.
Not that this will be easy.
“It’s going to be very difficult personally as well as professionally (for me),” said Abeler.
“I comfort myself that if I’m successful in managing this budget, with likely growth built into it, although lesser growth, it will be sustainable for two, four, 10 years from now,” he said.
“Currently, if we don’t manage it, it will be unsustainable within four years from now,” said Abeler.
“Minnesota is one of the most generous states anywhere in our human service programs,” he said.
That will continue to be true in the future, Abeler explained.
To view a YouTube video of the Abeler interview, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9j-vvpCp DRY.