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Minnesota Legislature passes funding bills without full funding

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, debates the state budget Wednesday as the Minnesota House worked through a series of bills. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators rushed through bills funding a bulk of the state budget Wednesday, but without fully paying.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty have not agreed on how to fund part of the budget, leaving tax and spending questions in the 2009 legislative session's final five days.

Senators and representatives worked into Wednesday night approving funding for education, agriculture, veterans, public works and other state programs, often with little or no debate. The bills were compromises worked out by House and Senate negotiators after both chambers passed their own budget bills last month and earlier this month.

Meanwhile, lawmakers waited to see if Pawlenty would sign a massive health and human services spending measure they sent to him earlier in the week.

Pawlenty said that legislative spending would be $34 billion under the bills being passed while revenues would be just $31 billion.

"Before we commit the state to write checks from the public checkbook, I need to know how you intend to cover the $3 billion hole in your plan," Pawlenty wrote to legislative leaders.

In a debate on the public education bill, Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, urged Pawlenty to consider raising taxes.

"It is going to be very hard to pay for the whole thing ... unless we come up with some tax revenue," she said.

The governor long has opposed higher state taxes.

Two of the Legislature's proposals to plug the state deficit have been sidetracked: Pawlenty vetoed a $1 billion tax increase legislators sent him and legislators opted against an earlier plan to delay nearly $1.8 billion in state payments to schools.

DFL legislative leaders said they could go along with the education payment sift if Pawlenty also would allow some new revenue, such as higher taxes. They also agreed to spend more money from the budget reserve, but only with a plan to build back up the reserves.

"At this point, the ball really is in the governor's court on this issue of a $3 billion gap," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said Wednesday night.

The governor plans to sign a bill funding agriculture and veterans programs, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said, but he made no promises about other bills that passed Wednesday.

Pawlenty and legislative leaders did not meet Wednesday to discuss their differences. The Legislature must adjourn its regular session Monday, with the main job writing the two-year budget.

Lawmakers pushed through a $343 million public works spending package.

The House voted 109-25 for the bill that uses state-borrowed funds for construction ranging from college building renovations to flood-prevention projects. The Senate followed 59-8.

The package includes about $54 million for flood prevention projects in communities hit by flooding in past years and this spring - including Breckenridge, Moorhead and Oakport Township. Another $18 million is included for flood recovery costs.

Pawlenty and Moorhead-area legislators agreed to the flood spending, and it appears to be safe from a Pawlenty veto.

However, McClung said, the governor will look over the bill carefully, and hinted that some projects will be line-item vetoed.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said the bill he sponsored will produce thousands of jobs throughout the state.

About 40 percent of public works funding would go to repair state college and university buildings.

A bill funding agriculture and military veterans' programs won unanimous backing in the House and a 62-5 Senate vote.

Lead House negotiator Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said Agriculture Department funding will be cut 8.4 percent during the next two-year budget period, but spending for the Veterans Affairs and Military Affairs departments increases 6.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.

Juhnke said the bill protects core agricultural services, such as food testing and dairy inspections. But state payments to ethanol producers will be slowed down.

"Is this a perfect bill?" Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy asked. "No. But it is as close to perfect as you are going to get."

Also Wednesday:

- The House voted 88-46 to continue existing spending if lawmakers and Pawlenty do not finish their budget work by July 1, when the new budget begins. Senators approved the bill Tuesday.

- Senators passed 50-16 a compromise energy bill that maintains a moratorium on building nuclear power plants. Senators earlier voted to lift the moratorium, but representatives refused to go along.

- Senators approved 58-8 a compromise bill funding various state programs. While the House wanted to raise money by selling naming rights to many state buildings, that was not included in the final bill.

Most of the public works talk this year centered on flood prevention and recovery.

Langseth said Oakport Township, just north of Moorhead, accounted for many of the homes damaged in this spring's flooding.

"The morale is really bad," he said, but $12 million is guaranteed to the area for flood-prevention projects.

"This is going to give people along the Red River peace of mind when those rivers begin to rise," said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said all projects in the public works package are ready to start soon.

"It's paint and shovel ready," Howes said, adding all jobs related to the package will be started by fall.

Public works projects in the bill include:

- University of Minnesota, $51.5 million.

- Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, $78.9 million.

- University of Minnesota Bell Museum, $24 million.

- University of Minnesota Morris demonstration solar thermal and photovoltaic systems, $350,000.

- Lake Superior Community and Technical College health and science center addition, $11 million.

- Mesabi Range Community and Technical College carpentry, industrial mechanical technology and shops addition, $5.3 million.

- Classrooms at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems campuses in Moorhead, Wadena, Pipestone, Thief River Falls, Pine City, Rochester and Brainerd, $3.6 million.

- Red Lake school construction, $5.8 million.

- First phase of Duluth airport terminal work, $4.9 million.

- Alexandria aircraft surveillance facility, $2 million.

- Acquire land for veterans' cemeteries in Redwood County and northeast Minnesota, $500,000.

- Chisholm regional competition and exhibit center, $750,000.

Don Davis and Scott Wente work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.