Facing an estimated $17 trillion federal deficit, members of a capacity crowd at the Central Lakes College cafeteria sharpened their pencils and went to work Wednesday night.
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., co-sponsored the interactive public forum designed to solicit advice on how to balance the federal budget. It was also sponsored by Central Lakes College in Brainerd and the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that champions fiscal stewardship.
“You’re going to get a feel for how difficult this is,” he said to an audience made up of both students and non-students.
He said Congress had heard budget recommendations from Simpson-Bowles commission and he wanted to hear the opinions of Brainerd area citizens.
It was the second of two budget-setting exercises Nolan attended Wednesday. The first one was in Duluth.
Sara Imhof, midwest regional director of the Concord Coalition, delivered a brief primer on the budget problem, addressing both short-term and long-term challenges. The federal debt, she said, has increased to about 73 percent of our gross domestic product. Identified as significant drivers of this debt were health care cost growth, an aging population, growing interest costs and insufficient revenue. Four main buckets of spending were Social Security, federal health care costs, defense spending and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending categories included Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, federal retirement and food stamps. Defense spending, she said amount to half of all discretionary spending.
The event organizers encouraged students to sit at tables with non-students in order to promote healthy differences of opinion.
Ron and Leanne Ommen of Pequot Lakes were seated at a table with a majority of CLC students and staff. He said that despite differences of opinion and age differences the tone was civil.
“Nobody got up and walked out,” he said.
When the table participants talked about possible reductions of National Institute of Health (NIH) funding, Ron Ommen said that medical research was diffuse and done with a shotgun approach.
Some it was productive, he said.
“Research is the life blood of medicine,” he said.
Other research was not.
“It’s a lot of money put down the rat hole,” he added.
By majority vote the table voted in favor of the reductions.
“Why doesn’t NIH repurpose itself?” he asked. “We don’t tend to repurpose ourselves in government. We just spend.”
The table voted against cuts in grants for water quality maintenance and improvement projects.
Nick Bielinski, CLC Student Senate president, talked about places where the water was undrinkable and could only be used for bathing and cleaning dishes.
“I can make the argument that water quality is the single most important element in the health of our community,” Ron Ommen said.
After a unanimous vote, 14-year-old CLC student Rochester McLain said: “Yeah! Great minds think alike.”
Paul McCormick of Emily, a CLC student, spoke in favor of government help for students, saying that without such help he wouldn’t be in college.
At the conclusion of the two-hour session individual tables of people reported on how they fared.
One table increased spending by $1 trillion but made cuts in the military and instituted a more progressive tax.
Another table suggested the U.S. look at how other countries handle health care costs. A third table instituted a more progressive tax rate and eliminated subsidies for oil companies.
One young man said it was difficult to reach agreement on the issue of whether or not to raise the retirement age.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Nolan pledged to take the group’s suggestions to Congress.
“I’m thrilled to be able to make the presentation from the people of Brainerd,” Nolan said.
Nolan termed the current session of Congress as the most unaccomplished Congress in the history of the U.S. He attributed the gridlock to the contention that candidates could win elections by attacking each other.
And while they were correct, he said: “You can’t govern that way.”
Nolan said he’s seen progress in congressional cooperation in issues that are below the horizon.
He congratulated the audience for discussing a variety of views in a civil manner.
“That’s what Congress needs to do,” he said.