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Transportation funding would remain stable

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, discusses a bill on the Minnesota House floor Monday, two weeks before the Legislature's May 18 constitutional deadline. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Senate and House needed little time to approve a $4.3 billion transportation funding compromise.

The Monday votes keep transportation just below current spending, and do not cut State Patrol operations. The House approved the measure 103-30; senators followed with a 63-4 tally

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said he expects Gov. Tim Pawlenty to sign the measure.

"This transportation bill squarely addresses the difficult economic times we are facing in Minnesota," said Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, House transportation finance chairman. "We are creating jobs and adequately funding for our statewide transportation system, all while contributing to the solution of our budget shortfall."

The bill provides more Twin Cities and greater Minnesota transit money in an attempt to avoid fare increases.

A controversial provision allowing law enforcement officers to stop motorists when seat belts are not being worn was not included in the measure.

Also missing was a proposal by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, that the House already passed to allow motorists to drive faster than the speed limit when passing another vehicle.

The bill allows the transportation commissioner make grants to local governments that need to replace or rehabilitate dangerous bridges.

Also included is a provision to establish a Stillwater lift bridge account. The account would accept money from Minnesota, Wisconsin, the federal government and private sources to operate the aging bridge.

'Remember kids'

Minnesota children's hospital leaders Monday urged legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to adequately fund medical programs.

"As the leading providers of health care for children, we want to raise our voices to support a population that doesn't vote, and is often overlooked," said Dr. Alan Goldbloom, president and CEO of Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. "Children need a place at the table in these budget discussions."

Children's of Minnesota estimates that the governor's health care budget proposal would cut its revenues by $36.2 million in 2010-11. The House and Senate health budget bills do not cut as deeply.

Marijuana OK'd again

Senators gave final approval to allowing seriously ill Minnesotans to use marijuana to ease pain.

The 35-29 Monday vote, similar to an earlier preliminary vote, came despite a last-minute attempt by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, to stop the measure.

The senator said that during a weekend looking into the bill, he came to the conclusion that it is "a lot of smoke cover for starting down the path to legalizing drugs."

Federal authorities approve more pain medicines each year, the former sheriff said, so marijuana is needed less all the time.

"It is going to be a law enforcement nightmare," he added.

A similar House bill awaits action.

Taxes hit hard

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty wasted no time to criticize House and Senate tax bills in a letter he wrote to tax chairmen.

"It is exceedingly disappointing the House and Senate Democrats have chosen to dramatically increase tax burdens on Minnesota residents and employers at a time when the state is economy is suffering from the deepest economic recession in more than 50 years," Pawlenty wrote to chairmen Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington.

A House-Senate conference committee has begun negotiating a compromise between the House plan to raise taxes $1.5 billion and the Senate's $2.2 billion proposal. Senators voted to raise most of that money with across-the-board income tax increases. The House proposes a variety of tax increases, including a new income tax bracket for the richest Minnesotans.

Pawlenty said the fact that both bills faced bipartisan opposition and narrowly passed, indicating that shows a need to reconsider the bills.

Deadline looms

Legislators face a Thursday deadline for House-Senate conference committees to finish their budget negotiations.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, emerged from a meeting with fellow Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty saying that many of the smaller budget bills written by the Democrat-controlled Legislature only face minor problems.

However, he predicted, a massive health and human services funding bill is "such a mess" that Republicans did not even begin discussing it.

An economic development bill may be stalled, Seifert said, because of a $30 million forgivable loan for a St. Paul building that Pawlenty opposes.

A bill funding agriculture and veterans programs is being held up because Pawlenty wants the state's veterans homes funded under that bill while senators put it in the health and human services bill.

Some discussion remains on a public safety funding bill, but "that is achievable," Seifert said.