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col Lethargy at the Legislature

Gov. Pawlenty has signed only one bill in 9 weeks

After nine weeks of committee hearings, floor sessions, caucus discussions, name-calling and political brinksmanship, this is what the Minnesota State Legislature has to show for its efforts: One bill.

As of Friday, just one piece of legislation -- something about a misnamed piece of land in St. Cloud -- had made its way to the governor's desk. He signed it on March 3. There are nearly 1,500 bills still awaiting action in the nine weeks the Legislature has left to complete its work.

We can sympathize with lawmakers, who are faced with the incredibly complex and difficult task of balancing a budget that stands to be more than $4.5 billion in the hole at the end of the current biennium. And many of the bills awaiting action in the Legislature can only be dealt with after a budget deal is struck.

Still, there are dozens and dozens of bills that don't hinge on approval of a budget plan. So, it's alarming that after more than 70 days of work, lawmakers have little in the way of approved legislation to show for it.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week attempted to nudge the Legislature out of its lethargy when he said during a press conference that it was time to "dial it up a notch. The time for action and leadership is now."

The Republican governor's message was somewhat political in tone. It was directed in large part at the DFL-controlled Senate. He accused the DFL leadership of being vocal in its criticism of Republican plans to balance the budget while offering no alternatives of its own.

Still, there's a fair amount of blame to go around for lack of substantive progress during the 2003 session. For example, after introducing his budget proposal last month, Pawlenty promptly flew off to Florida on vacation. And while it's true that Senate Democrats have offered little in the way of constructive debate on the budget issue, the Republican House leadership has been equally slow in coaxing key legislation out of committees.

When we ask year after year why it takes so long for the Legislature to accomplish anything we're told that the process takes time. You can't pass a bill overnight, veteran lawmakers say. You have to allow ample time for debate, compromise and revision.

That's a fair explanation. Yet, we're continually amazed at how much time our legislators waste. Committee meetings and floor sessions seldom start on time. Discussion on minor, inconsequential legislation is allowed to drag on and on. Almost nothing gets done on Fridays when lawmakers high-tail it home early for the weekend.

Then, most of the key legislation is resolved at the last minute of the last hour of the last day of the session. Sometimes the Legislature misses the state-mandated deadline altogether, and the governor is forced to call a special session -- at taxpayer expense.

Regardless of what the 2003 Legislature does or does not do, nearly all of us stand to be affected in one way or another by cutbacks in government services and funding. Minnesotans are in no mood for a costly special session.

It's time for Gov. Pawlenty, House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger to stop kicking the tires and checking the oil. It's time to get the bus rolling.

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