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Minnesota Legislature: It's final two weeks of session, maybe

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators have been in session a day short of 17 weeks. Two weeks remain before they must adjourn for the year. They have introduced 3,124 bills. Just 27 have become law, only two of which are major. When faced with an ear...

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators have been in session a day short of 17 weeks. Two weeks remain before they must adjourn for the year.

They have introduced 3,124 bills. Just 27 have become law, only two of which are major.

When faced with an early February deadline for balancing the current budget, they failed and left it up to Gov. Tim Pawlenty to cut $281 million of programs.

Legislative committees got serious about the budget just two weeks ago and last week the House and Senate needed some marathon sessions -- the House debated bills until 4 a.m. Friday and the Senate until 1 a.m. Saturday -- to pass differing versions of a $28 billion, two-year budget.

Tempers have been flaring and speeches are becoming increasingly partisan in both houses.

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The signs would appear not to bode well for getting legislative work done by the May 19 constitutional deadline. Going longer would require a governor-called special session.

"I don't know how it is going to end," Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said, echoing what many are saying.

How do lawmakers reach the May 19 goal? "We give her hell for the next two weeks," Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, said.

That is, if they really want to finish by the deadline. Stumpf said some Senate Democrats prefer to wait until June 30, the day before the new budget kicks in, in a game of chicken with Republicans who oppose DFLers' $1 billion tax increase plan.

The DFL caucus does not endorse the strategy -- yet.

"Our determination will be somewhat based on public reaction," Stumpf said.

The biggest stumbling block is the session's major job -- passing a $28 billion, two-year budget. The problem is that even though everyone's proposals are bigger than the current budget, soaring health-care and other costs forced a $4.2 billion deficit.

The GOP-controlled House pretty much is on the same page as Republican Pawlenty. Neither will allow higher state taxes -- although fee increases are fine -- to balance the budget. Senate Democrats generally line up behind their leaders' $1 billion tax increase proposal, which would up cigarette taxes by $1 a pack, close some corporate tax loopholes and collect more income tax from the state's richest residents.

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"I doubt that even they have the votes to pass it," Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls, said of the DFL tax plan. "It depends, I think, on the mood of rural Senate Democrats."

Democrats concede Pawlenty will get his way on most issues; that's the advantage of being governor, especially one with a House dominated by his party.

"They just don't have enough leverage to do what they want to do," Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said.

Pawlenty has appointed his chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, and Finance Commissioner Dan McElroy as shuttle diplomats to work with legislative leaders in coming days.

"It's the usual legislative procrastination," said Pawlenty, who for the past four years was House majority leader.

The biggest factors to ending the session on time involve finding solutions to a variety of budget-related programs, including:

- The tax debate. Actually, most Republicans aren't debating. They just insist they won't accept tax increases. Period. Democrats say some increases are needed to save important programs, such as those helping the state's neediest residents.

- If no taxes are increased, will Democrats embrace the House GOP plan to bring the state $100 million a year by adding a casino to the Canterbury Park horseracing track?

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- How state aid would be divided among cities. Rural legislators insist that payments to suburbs should be reduced as they are elsewhere in Minnesota. Weaver said "absolutely not" when asked if there is any way state payments mainly sent to suburbs could be cut.

- How to fund transportation. Republicans want to borrow money; Democrats want to raise gasoline taxes and motor vehicle license fees.

- With or without new revenue, the House, Senate and Pawlenty disagree over how deep cuts should be in dozens of programs, and which programs should be cut.

- Whether the state will borrow money to fund construction projects.

House-Senate conference committees probably will be set up at mid-week so the vast differences between the versions of spending bills can be worked out. However, they can make little progress until Pawlenty and legislative leaders agree on how much will be spent in each category. That is not likely to happen until next weekend at the earliest.

That leaves a week for legislators to finish their work on a dozen tax and spending bills, some of which are 400 pages long.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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