Fast-track legislators now slow to a crawl

By Ashley H. Grant

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- The Legislature has dozens of issues to resolve and just 25 days left for floor sessions. But the deadline doesn't seem to be having much effect right now.

"It's unbelievably slow," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna. "There's no doubt about that."

House and Senate leaders haven't even reached an agreement to close the remaining $440 million budget shortfall. Until that happens, everything else is on hold: Stadiums, transportation and borrowing for state construction projects.


House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a Republican from Kenyon, called negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe "pretty much nonexistent."

Sviggum believes Moe, an Erskine Democrat who is running for governor, might be delaying compromises until after the state DFL convention May 3-5 so he can show delegates he's fighting for their principles.

Moe said he wants to wrap up legislative business just like everyone else. He also said, "My first responsibility as leader of the Senate is to make sure we put a good package together."

After coming together to erase about $1.95 billion of the projected deficit, the two chambers have opposite ideas for the remaining chunk.

The GOP-controlled House wants to cut spending further and use some accounting shifts to get the state through the end of this budget cycle in 2003. The DFL-led Senate says the cuts would be too deep -- particularly for welfare recipients. Senators want to raise some taxes, instead.

Unless leaders reach an accord on those basic issues soon, work will grind to a halt. Both chambers plan to take up a few small bills on the floor today and Tuesday.

"Then, you almost start looking for work to do," Sviggum said. "I don't plan on holding the House around here. If we can't get an agreement, maybe we should go home and come back after May fifth."

Also at stake is the political future of House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, who's also running for governor. The state Republican convention isn't until June, and it might be tough for Pawlenty to gain the backing of party activists if House Republicans allow significant tax hikes this year.


Sen. Doug Johnson, co-chairman of the budget conference committee, said he hopes the Legislature doesn't go until the last possible minute again this year.

And he doesn't think many others want it to drag on, either -- "unless their highest priority is to collect per diem," he said, referring to the daily allowance lawmakers get while in session.

"Mine isn't," said Johnson, DFL-Tower. "Mine is to go fishing."

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