Loose change

What’s in a promise? When it comes to state government and desperate economic times, nothing.

Officials are searching under the state’s couch cushions looking for loose change and quite often it means taking money that was to be used for something specific, and using it for something else instead.

The state’s health care access fund, which comes from taxes paid by Minnesota health care organizations and professionals, is what funds MinnesotaCare, the state’s health care program. It usually runs a surplus and when budgets are tight, the state officials have taken the money and used it for other things, which drives the health care groups crazy.

“I think somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million over the last five years has been taken from that fund to plug holes in the general fund budget, and that’s very problematic to health care providers,” Lawrence Massa, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, told MPR’s Lorna Benson last week.

When St. Paul raised its sales tax by .5 percent in the ’90s, it did so with the promise that part of it would go toward paying debt on RiverCentre, and some it would be used for the neighborhood STAR program.

But the city has been using more of the neighborhood money to pay debt and it’s asking the Legislature for permission to keep doing it.

Today, the St. Paul Legal Ledger’s Charley Shaw writes that some legislators — at least one of whom is a pilot and airplane owner — is concerned that a fund specifically to improve airports, will be further diverted to closing the budget gap.

Members of the Airport Funding Advisory Task Force on Monday said the “integrity” of the money generated from various aviation taxes and user fees is in question. That’s because during the 2008 legislative session, $15 million from the Airports Fund was tapped to help solve a $935 million general fund budget deficit for the current two-year budget period.

Now that the state faces a $4.8 billion deficit in the 2010-2011 biennium, Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, is concerned that future revenue for the State Airports Fund will be used for purposes other than aviation.

At the Capitol today, leaders of cities which receive local government aid, are concerned they’ll lose it. And they’ve got a good reason to be concerned: There’s almost $500 million sitting in that pot.

The governor is scheduled to unveil his budget recommendations by January 27.

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