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Legislators to blow by deadline

Democrat Reps. Brita Sailer of Park Rapids and John Persell of Bemidji get work done during a Wednesday Minnesota House floor session. Pioneer Photo/Scott Wente

ST. PAUL -- Forget about the deadlines.

That was the message Wednesday night from House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.

Legislators earlier this year set today as the deadline for House and Senate negotiators to work out differences in bills the two chambers passed to finance state programs.

That will not happen tonight, Kelliher admitted to a House-Senate commission.

"I am disappointed by that, but I will get over that and keep working," Kelliher said.

Hope remains that bills funding public safety, agriculture, veterans and various state government programs will meet the deadline. However, major divisions remain in bills funding health and human services, public school education and higher education.

Tax policy also remains unresolved, with the House wanting to raise a variety of taxes $1.5 billion, the Senate calling for a $2.2 billion income tax increase and Gov. Tim Pawlenty refusing to accept any higher state taxes.

Tax negotiators said Wednesday they only have agreed to minor issues, with the conflicting tax increase proposals still to be resolved.

"We've done all the lightweight stuff," said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

Sen. Rod Skoe, another tax negotiator, said the committee is making progress, but probably will miss its self-imposed midnight deadline. Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said tax bills often are the last to be negotiated.

Lawmakers have passed bills funding energy, environment and economic development. Pawlenty is considering whether to sign them.

While Kelliher scrapped today's deadlines, legislators still face a May 18 constitutional deadline for ending their regular session. Many say they expect a special summer session to finish writing a $33 billion, two-year budget that begins on July 1. As part of preparing the budget, policymakers must plug a $4.6 billion deficit.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, blamed Pawlenty for some of the lack of progress because he is changing where he stands on the budget.

"The governor is coming back and saying spend more money and cut the courts," Sertich said.

Sertich added that this is the first time the Legislature has set deadlines for working out differences between House and Senate bills.

Commissioner Tom Hanson of Minnesota Management and Budget said Pawlenty is prepared to negotiate budget issues in time for the Legislature to adjourn by its constitutional deadline.

Deadlines are important, Hanson said, but "sometimes it doesn't always work because it doesn't work out."

Kelliher said she does not want to wait until the last minute to pass major bills. She prefers leaving time to let legislators understand the bills.

"We could get dragged beyond the finish line if we are not careful because of the complexity of the federal dollars," Kelliher said of funds Washington is sending the state to help stimulate the economy.

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story. Davis and Wente work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.