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It's crunch time in St. Paul

ST. PAUL (AP) -- It's crunch time at the Capitol.

With two weeks left in the session, everything comes down to $1 billion -- the difference between the Senate and House budget plans.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his colleagues in the Republican-led House have pledged to solve the $4.23 billion budget deficit without raising taxes. The DFL-controlled Senate, meanwhile, has proposed $1 billion in tax hikes to soften cuts to public services.

Pawlenty said he's not worried yet about the May 19 deadline coming and going without resolution.

"It's the usual procrastination where it all comes crashing at the end," he said.

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At stake is the entire $28 billion or so budget, most of which is split among more than a half dozen funding areas: K-12 education, environment and agriculture, economic development, state government finance, health and human services, transportation and public safety and higher education.

The Senate wants to spend more in nearly every area and would pay for the increased services through higher income taxes on the top 5 percent of wage earners in the state, a 5-cent gas tax increase and adding $1 to the current 48-cent-per-pack cigarette tax.

Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger, a Democrat, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a Republican, both have said they expect to finish their work without a special session, but it's unclear how that will happen.

The two sides first have to agree on budget targets for each of the spending areas. That's supposed to happen sometime this week, but the two sides will first have to agree on how to reconcile the $1 billion gap.

Until that happens, House-Senate negotiators on the various bills will try to work out differences on policy issues, including what the graduation standards should be for Minnesota's school children, whether there should be a hunting season for mourning doves and what the state's welfare program should look like.

One thing that will make the final two weeks of session less contentious is that two high-profile initiatives already have been signed into law: a 24-hour waiting period on abortions and changes in the way handgun permits are issued in Minnesota.

In the past, measures like those were inserted into various bills including the overall funding packages, bogging down debate and sometimes making it difficult to get those bills out of joint conference committees.

"We've really worked hard to keep the bills clean," said Sviggum, R-Kenyon. "I strongly believe we will finish on time."

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Sviggum said he expects the remaining time to play out like this: The House and Senate will reach a stalemate, then the governor's office will step in to help broker a deal.

Pawlenty, the former House majority leader, is a strong negotiator who has spent countless hours behind closed doors with both sides in the past.

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