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Disagreeing legislators to tackle budget deficit

ST.

ST. PAUL - Yvonne Prettner Solon and Keith Langseth both are Democratic-Farmer-Laborite state senators, but differences between them illustrate the problem Minnesota lawmakers face as they grapple with how to fix a $935 million state budget deficit.

Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, looked at that deficit and - realizing many cuts have been made in recent years - saw a more difficult problem than when the state faced a nearly $4.6 billion deficit in 2003.

Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, didn't worry so much about it: "It is going to be difficult, but if it (the deficit) doesn't get worse, it can be done."

Also, Prettner Solon promised a fight to protect a health-care fund that Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to use to help balance the budget. "It's been raided over and over."

Langseth, on the other hand, is resigned to using money from the fund because if lawmakers don't, "we've got to find $250 million someplace. ... It isn't quite as bad as people think."

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Those are just a couple of differences between senators who as Democrats should be expected to agree on many things. Throw in House Democrats, Republicans of both chambers and the GOP's Pawlenty and it becomes easy to see how difficult the Legislature's main remaining issue will be to solve.

Lawmakers are thinking about the budget and other issues during an Easter break that lasts through noon Tuesday.

The 2008 legislative session began last month with a bang, passing a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the sales tax to support outdoors and arts programs. Then came a $6.6 billion transportation funding bill, enacted over Pawlenty's veto. And senators kicked Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau out of the job.

The pace slowed a bit after the House and Senate passed differing public works funding bills, although signs are those divisions may be worked out in coming days. That leaves one major job left when lawmakers return from an Easter break on Tuesday - how to plug the budget gap.

"In this first month, we have accomplished more than some legislatures do in an entire year," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said Pawlenty needs to be more involved in discussions about the state budget deficit and public works construction bill. House leaders have invited Pawlenty to a meeting on those issues.

"I don't know if he's still of the old mindset that we wait until the (session's) last weekend to get everything done," Sertich said. "That's not the mindset of the Legislature anymore."

In recent years, lawmakers usually have bumped up to their constitutional deadline, which in 2008 is May 19. This year, another factor enters in.

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The constitution requires them to wrap up their two-year work in 120 "legislative days," and they have just 27 left. The shortage of legislative days - when either the House or Senate meets in a floor session - means legislative leaders must spread out their floor sessions or risk running out of time even before May 19.

Kelliher and other legislative leaders hold out hope of getting out of St. Paul early this year.

But Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba said it would be worth spending extra time working on the budget deficit.

"The more you talk about it and work with it, you probably get a better budget," the Long Prairie Democrat said.

Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said the Democrat-led Legislature will not dismiss Pawlenty's entire budget-balancing plan.

"We're going to balance the budget without raising taxes," Moe said.

House and Senate leaders already have a pretty good idea how their budget changes will look, although they don't want to talk about that until after they return from the break. A deadline forces lawmakers to make budget decisions by Friday.

Kelliher emphasized that the House will not allow cuts in early-childhood-through-high-school education programs and nursing homes. And her plan is to try to keep college tuitions from rising too much.

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There is general agreement that to fix the budget problem, program cuts will be combined with using budget reserves and increasing revenue such as eliminating some tax breaks that multinational companies enjoy.

Besides the budget, the spotlight will shine on a public works debate. The state sells bonds - in other words, borrows money - to finance projects ranging from college building repairs to constructing events centers.

Pawlenty proposed spending $825 million, while the House and Senate originally voted for spending $965 million. Behind-the-scenes negotiations apparently have narrowed the differences and a public meeting on the issue should come soon after lawmakers return to St. Paul.

Langseth, Senate bonding chairman, said he expects a bill to be wrapped up quickly.

"You've got to keep probing and see what works," he said.

Status of issues in Minn. Legislature

Baby product safety:

Bills are moving through the Legislature to outlaw baby products made with certain materials but face skepticism from some lawmakers.

Biofuels:

Lawmakers are considering increasing blends of biodiesel - a fuel made of plant oil and diesel - to 20 percent from the current 2 percent.

Bonding:

The House and Senate have passed their own public works funding proposals but have yet to compromise an agreement.

Bridge survivors:

Bills to compensate survivors of the Aug. 1 Interstate 35W bridge collapse have passed the House and Senate, but the bills differ on limiting how much money victims could receive.

Budget:

Legislators last year passed a $34 billion, two-year budget, but now must plug a nearly

$1 billion deficit. Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to reduce most state budgets by

4 percent and take some money out of surplus funds.

Dangerous dogs:

Bills that label some dogs as dangerous are moving through House and Senate committees.

Energy:

An effort to influence a regional program controlling greenhouse gas emissions is moving through the Legislature but faces intense scrutiny.

Environment:

Committees have debated requiring Minnesota vehicles to meet the same emissions standards as California, which are stricter than federal standards. The bill has mixed support.

Health-care funding:

Lawmakers soon will put together their alternatives to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's health-care budget proposal, which cut $187 million and used another $250 million from a dedicated fund to help balance the state budget.

Health-care reform:

The House and Senate are considering similar versions of a reform proposal boosting public health awareness, improving care of people with chronic health conditions, expanding coverage of uninsured and forcing providers to post their costs for treatments.

Mobile telephones:

A bill has received tepid support that would require drivers to use hands-free devices to make telephone calls from vehicles.

Another measure spells out phone users' rights.

School funding:

Teachers and school advocates wanted lawmakers to increase state funding to classrooms this year, but a state budget deficit leaves little room for new spending.

Star lakes:

Lawmakers are considering a new program recognizing lake associations for their water and shoreline improvements.

Lake associations could seek a star lake designation for their efforts to enhance water quality and native vegetation growth.

Taxes:

As lawmakers look for ways to fill a nearly $1 billion budget deficit, there is general agreement that no major tax increase will be needed.

Transportation funding:

After years of debate, the Legislature put a transportation funding package into law, over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's objection.

The $6.6 billion, 10-year plan to fund road, bridge and transit projects relies on gasoline, sales and other tax increases.

Transportation policy:

Lawmakers are considering a host of transportation policy proposals, such as toughening the state's seat-belt law, banning the use of text messages while driving and strengthening school-bus safety measures.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this report.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com

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