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Lawmakers far apart as deadline nears

Legislature's calendar says one week to go, but don't bet on it

By Martiga Lohn

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- With one week remaining in the legislative session, state government's leaders are far apart on the meatiest issues -- taxes, education, health care and transportation -- and outside observers say a special session is likely.

House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Gov. Tim Pawlenty nibbled at the edges of a roughly $30 billion two-year state budget over the weekend, agreeing on almost $1.7 billion in spending for courts, prisons and other public safety items Sunday. On Monday, they inked a deal on higher education, agreeing to spend $2.7 billion on public colleges and student aid.

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They also wrestled with funding for state government operations and agriculture and environmental programs.

The Minnesota Constitution requires them to end this year's session by May 23. If they haven't finished their work, a special session will be needed. The real deadline is June 30, because state government would shut down July 1 if a new two-year budget isn't approved.

"I don't think there's any way it will happen without a special session," said Joseph Kunkel, a political scientist at Minnesota State University in Mankato. "Everything is more or less position-taking or posturing until it all comes together at the end, and we're not even sure where the end is."

Special sessions aren't that unusual at the Capitol; legislators have needed eight in the last 10 years, though that includes three in 1997 alone. But this session was supposed to be different; after lawmakers took heavy criticism for failing to pass any major bills last year, all the early session talk was of cooperation.

Placing blame

Now, in a familiar end-of-session ritual, both parties are working to portray the other as the problem.

On Monday, GOP House leaders forced a procedural vote on the Senate DFL plan to raise income taxes for the state's wealthiest people, saying Democrats who want more spending should back the bill. Most DFLers refused to vote for the bill, saying the move was pure politics.

"I'm not playing your games," said Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm.

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House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he wanted to send the Senate tax bill to Pawlenty for a quick veto. The Republican governor has vowed to veto any statewide tax increase.

"Democrats want to have it both ways," the speaker said.

DFLers took the fight to the airwaves, launching a statewide radio commercial that slams Pawlenty and Republicans for not spending enough on schools. More education funding is a key piece of the Senate Democrats' budget vision, which also would prevent cuts to public health insurance programs.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said he would like to avoid a special session, but he's more concerned about the final outcome.

"I would not look at the calendar or clock to determine this," Johnson said. "We want a good end on behalf of average Minnesotans."

Sviggum shot back: "We can wrap up the global thing in two hours if the Senate was interested."

Also still hanging are the state's roads, buses and trains. The Senate might vote as soon as today on the House's $7.8 billion transportation package, which includes a dime-a-gallon increase in the gas tax. Pawlenty has promised to veto the bill.

Negotiations on the overall budget are expected to start today.

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One way out could be about $1 billion in fees, tax adjustments and accounting shifts that haven't already been proposed, Johnson said. His list includes an increase in wholesale cigarette taxes.

Meanwhile, a conference committee started to hash out a compromise between the House and Senate public safety proposals Monday. Both sides want to get tougher on sex crimes and methamphetamine manufacturing, and the top leaders and Pawlenty agreed that the worst sex offenders should be punished with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Movement on the crime bill is a good sign, said Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth. Lawmakers adjourned last year without passing any major bills. "I don't think anyone wants to hang around here," he said. "We just want to get it done."

What's next

Long way to go: Legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have some heavy lifting ahead. Out of a two-year state budget of roughly $30 billion, they've agreed on a $1.7 billion crime bill.

Meter running: There's one week to the May 23 deadline for adjournment. Since lawmakers can meet in special session, July 1 is the real deadline -- when state government would shut down if the budget's not squared away.

Critical pieces: The most basic functions of state government -- public schools, roads and subsidized health programs -- are still up in the air. So are the taxes to pay for them.

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