Legislature enters the final act; the budget fix
ST. PAUL — All-encompassing bills for attacking a $935 million budget deficit consumed the Legislature on Thursday, setting up the three-way negotiations that will bring the 2008 session to a close.
The separate plans awaiting House and Senate votes both rely heavily on dollars shifted from the state’s checking and savings accounts. But they also bite into payments to hospitals, courts, colleges and many other government programs.
"During a time of economic downturn it is appropriate that we use rainy day funds to help address this budget deficit," Democratic House Majority Leader Tony Sertich said at the outset of a debate that promised to last into the night. "We cut the budget where necessary."
Technically, the budget doesn’t have to be fixed until next June. But state leaders don’t want to wait because the choices diminish as time passes and as payments go out the door. Already, lawmakers exempted schools, nursing homes and local government aid programs from cuts — taking more than half of the budget off the table.
If the DFL-led Legislature and GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty fail to get a negotiated deal, the constitution gives the governor the power to make cuts on his own after depleting state reserves.
Pawlenty said Thursday he was bothered by the bills that had taken shape, noting that many ideas he championed fall under the ax.
"Their budget bills are filled with stuff that defunds my priorities," he said. They are "putting together bills they know are unacceptable to me."
As an example, both bills squeeze his QComp program that base teacher raises more on performance than seniority.
The bills don’t just deal with money. The House version also would rename the Boxing Commission the Combative Sports Commission and give it jurisdiction over other combat sports, let welfare recipients who have babies get higher payments and ban a plastic used in baby bottles and sippy cups.
House members stripped out a provision allowing bars in cities within 10 miles of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center to pour two hours longer during the Republican National Convention. Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, promised a full airing in a committee hearing next week.
"This is St. Paul’s opportunity to be considered a big city," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who argued for keeping the measure.
In a twist, Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington tried to remove a $14 million guarantee for convention fundraisers from the bill, and Democrats argued to keep it. The move failed.
"I’m glad that they chose us," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids.
Discussions in the House were so drawn-out that by 4 p.m. Garofalo moved to suspend a rule requiring debate to end by midnight. Usually such motions don’t happen until well past dark. He withdrew his amendment after objections.
The Senate voted to remove freestanding policy provisions that didn’t have any money attached to them. But there were still dozens of pending amendments holding up a final vote.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen acknowledged that the budget bill wouldn’t please everyone.
"In a perfect world, I would vote no on this bill," said Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. "But this budget and our circumstances today are not the perfect world."
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, took issue with the amount being taken from reserves and the cash-flow account when budget problems are expected to linger.
"It’s just going to be tougher next year to just put a little Band-Aid on it this year," he said.
The Legislature has until May 19 to complete its work, but there is a growing sense that lawmakers can reach the finish line early for a change. They passed a construction projects bill Wednesday and a sizable transportation finance plan earlier in the year.
"It’s bonding, budget and bye-bye," said House Republican leader Marty Seifert of Marshall.