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Ventura predicts $2.5B deficit

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators just wrapped up their nearly four-month session, but those not consumed with the Nov. 5 election already are focused on next year.

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators just wrapped up their nearly four-month session, but those not consumed with the Nov. 5 election already are focused on next year.

"We borrowed against the future of this state..." House Minority Leader Tom Pugh, DFL-South St. Paul, told his colleagues as the session wound down last weekend. "We are living for today only. We are getting by."

Lawmakers predict a state budget deficit anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion in the next two-year budget, depending how the economy performs.

"There is a big, big problem," Sen. Doug Johnson, DFL-Tower, said about next year.

Gov. Jesse Ventura blamed lawmakers for creating a problem for themselves -- and whoever is governor next year -- by "taking the easy way out" this year. Ventura vetoed both parts of the legislative budget fix this year, although lawmakers had no trouble overriding him.

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Ventura predicts at least a $2.5 billion deficit next year. That compares with a $2.4 billion shortfall lawmakers faced this year.

This year's deficit was fixed largely by draining the state's budget reserves and shifting state payments to a future date.

"We're going to have to get some help from the economy," House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Egan, said.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said the key to improving the budget is a better economy, and there are things the state can do to help.

"Make sure we can do whatever we can to stimulate the state's economy," he gave as a top priority. "We need to get to the point where Minnesota is very competitive."

If next year worries many lawmakers, the just-completed session at least met the minimum requirements.

"Considering we had a $2.4 billion deficit we had to balance, I thought rural Minnesota came out quite well," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. "We were able to preserve our funding for K-12 education, our rural nursing homes and local government aid."

The 2002 session was supposed to be short -- leaders had hoped to end it at the end of March -- and primarily deal with tweaking the budget and funding state construction projects.

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The construction bill would sell bonds to finance $880 million for projects ranging from university renovations to a volleyball center. But Gov. Jesse Ventura is expected to veto millions of dollars worth of projects -- he said maybe half of the projects -- today.

One of the projects in the bill as it left the Legislature was the $5.5 million measure to allow the Trollwood Performing Arts School to build a new campus in north Moorhead. Like about 70 other projects, Trollwood was on Ventura's likely veto list.

Rural legislators were proud to have passed a bill mandating the use of biodiesel in the state.

"That was huge," Marquart said. "One of the more important things we have done for agriculture."

Most rural legislators were frustrated no transportation-funding package passed this year.

"If there is room for criticism, it probably would be on transportation," Nornes said. "But that has gotten to be such a complicated and political subject these days."

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, made it clear this week that as a governor candidate he will use the lack of transportation money against Republicans in his campaign. He singled out Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

Moe said people are calling traffic congestion "Sviggum jams ... and, by the way, there will be Pawlenty of them."

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Moe and other Democrats supported a 6-cent gasoline tax increase -- to rise annually at the rate of inflation -- to provide billions of extra dollars for roads, bridges and transit.

But House Republicans refused to go along with the tax increase, and many rural lawmakers complained about funding transit programs. The House passed a bill borrowing money for transportation projects.

In the end, House and Senate transportation negotiators could not agree on a funding package. The bonding bill contains some transportation money, but Ventura threatens to veto a portion of that.

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

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