Lawmakers return for budget negotiations

By Patrick Howe

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- Like porcupines in courtship, legislative leaders are cautious about getting together.

They quickly recoiled after a brief attempt to strike a session-ending deal Wednesday.

For this week, House and Senate leaders are planning a few more days of circling. Conference committees will have public meetings on competing plans to solve the budget deficit, prepare for terrorism, repair roads and bridges, and issue bonds for long-term projects.


In private, leaders return to genuine deal-making.

In terms of how long the session will go, they're now talking weeks instead of days.

The leaders once hoped to reach agreement last week and return only to finish the paperwork. That hope dissolved in an unfruitful summit-style meeting on Wednesday, where 30 lawmakers representing leaders of both parties in both chambers found few points of agreement in their respective plans.

Leaders seem willing to negotiate until May 20 -- the last day allowed for the session under the state constitution -- if need be.

"We'll be here as long as it takes," said Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe.

Among their differences:

The Senate Democrat transportation plan includes an increase in the gas tax of 6 cents per gallon, indexed to inflation, that raises $5 billion overall. The House Republican plan raises $750 million by borrowing against predicted growth in road funds, with no tax increases.

The Senate anti-terrorism plan raises phone taxes 25 cents per month to spend $17 million on new police radios and training. The House plan spends $22 million on training and equipment from a smoking prevention fund and another $26 million on communication systems in the bonding bill.


The Senate budget-balancing plan increases cigarette taxes by 60 cents per pack and delays payments to schools and counties. The House plan includes no tax increases but cuts health insurance programs for the poor and spends the entire $325 million anti-youth smoking fund on the deficit.

The Senate bonding bill would spend $1.2 billion, including $8 million on the Northstar commuter rail line between St. Cloud and Minneapolis. The House plan is $839 million, with no money for the line.

Taxes are the most consistent dividing line. House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon once predicted a gas-tax increase would pass this year, provided it is used entirely to improve roads, but, so far, most House Republicans don't support an increase.

"Let's not just say it's going to be $5 per month, per individual," Rep. Bill Kuisle of Rochester, who wrote the House plan, said Friday on public radio. "This is $200 million per year they're going to be raising in taxes."

But his Senate counterpart, Democratic Sen. Dean Johnson of Willmar, is optimistic a gas tax increase of more than 3 cents will pass.

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