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Capitol Chatter: Political leaders scramble to rewrite talking points

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ST. PAUL - A projected state budget surplus so shocked Minnesota political leaders Thursday that they did not know how to respond.

Their talking points, drawn up long ago, featured placing blame on the other side for a new deficit. But then everyone, including the state economist, was surprised with an $876 million surplus. So those talking points issued after the announcement were changed rather hastily.

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There appeared to be one general theme: Keep the money in the bank, for now.

"While we may finally have a little money in our checkbook, we need to focus on using that money to restore our savings and pay back our debts," Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he will not propose any tax or spending changes until after the next budget projection, planned for late February or early March. He and legislative leaders indicated that they will allow the money to fall into the rainy day account, as current law requires, for the time being.

However, Reinert and others brought up a way to use the money. Paying off debts for Reinert, and many other legislators, should begin with catching up with late payments to schools.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher emphasized that after the forecast: "While it is relatively good short-term news that the state is projecting a small budget surplus, in the long term it only means that a bad situation did not get worse. ... Schools and colleges have paid a steep price for the state to have a slightly brighter fiscal outlook: more delayed funding, more communities forced to fund the basics of education through local levies, more districts forced to borrow money and more cuts in staff and programs."

Most interests groups were caught off guard as much as politicians, and were not prepared for a post-budget forecast plea for money from the surplus.

Homeless advocates, however, were ready and wasted no time asking for $5 million they feel was lost in state funding this year.

"Restoring this funding would be a drop in the bucket for the state budget, but would mean everything to a family who could stay in supportive housing instead of returning to live in a car," said Liz Kuoppala, Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless executive director.

Tax plan dead?

Moments after learning the state budget has a projected surplus, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, flatly declared Dayton's dream of raising taxes on the richest Minnesotans as dead.

Not much later, Dayton said he would not pursue the idea in 2012, while leaving the door open to bring it back up in 2013.

But while Dayton and Republican leaders agreed the surplus likely will keep the tax plan out of debate next year, they signaled that the 2012 session, beginning Jan. 24, may not be smooth.

"Republican legislators' devotion to protecting millionaires from paying their fair share of taxes comes at the expense of everyone else," Dayton said in rhetoric fit for a campaign.

GOP leaders took credit for the surplus, saying improvements they made in how the state treats businesses helped add jobs to the economy.

Koch admitted, however, that the battle is not over: "This is not a victory. This is a good start."

More agreements?

Dayton indicated shortly after learning the state budget will have a surplus that more time should be available for him and Republicans who control the Legislature to work on an issue upon which they may agree: government reform.

So little was done on the subject this year that it is hard to say how much agreement there will be next year on improving how government operates. But both sides say they want the work to continue.

Dayton used the example of this year's reduction of red tape for businesses seeking environmental permits as an example of how Democrats and Republicans can work together.

Republican say government reform will be the focus on next legislative session.

The surplus does not change anything, Koch said: The top 2012 priorities remain making government more effective and helping more people to find jobs.

Employers are looking for government stability, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said. Reforms could help Minnesota move in that direction, he added.

Bakk vs. hunger

Dayton and Vikings defensive end Jared Allen will join state Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, Tuesday when he hosts a fund-raiser in St. Paul to help northeastern Minnesota food shelves.

The 4 to 6 p.m. event at the Liffey is the fifth annual Stock the Shelves fund-raiser with Bakk and Hunger Solutions Minnesota. Proceeds will go to 18 food shelves in Bakk's area.

"Due to the poor economy and high unemployment, food shelves are struggling to meet the increased demand," Bakk said. "More and more families are stretched to the limit and relying on food shelves to eat."

Raising questions

Many people under the marble dome have questioned the timing of Zygi Wilf's purchase of a $19 million apartment overlooking New York City's Central Park.

He bought the apartment at a time he is asking for $350 million or more in public money to build a stadium for his Minnesota Vikings.

The New York Observer reports that the apartment at 778 Park Ave. features "15 large and beautifully proportioned rooms, 10 of which have at least two exposures, many with partial views of Central Park."

Pearl Harbor

The 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor will be commemorated in the Capitol complex Wednesday.

The 10 a.m. program will be in the Veterans' Services Building and will include survivors of the attack.

Minnesota Navy Reserve members served on board the USS Ward, which was on patrol when the attack began. Ward sailors sank a midget Japanese submarine, firing the first American shots of World War II. One of the guns sits just west of the Veteran's Services Building.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications

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Pioneer staff reports
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