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State budget details could be delayed

ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans may not know what the state's next two-year budget will look like by the time legislators go home for the year Monday night.

Chances of a negotiated deal faded Friday amid more cross words than negotiations a day after Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he will take the unprecedented step of unilaterally balancing the state budget by cutting spending plans lawmakers earlier approved.

Three days remain for legislators and Pawlenty to negotiate a deal. Both sides said they were willing to talk, and Pawlenty's office on Friday let legislative leaders know they were welcome to meet with the governor, but no talks took place.

Lawmakers passed dozens of mostly minor bills Friday, taking lengthy breaks throughout the day.

Pawlenty on Friday signed a public safety funding bill that cuts money for public safety and court functions, and raises many court fees.

Short of a negotiated deal by Monday, cities and counties will not know how much they will have to cut. Hospitals will await final word on their losses. Needy Minnesotans will wonder whether they can afford to go to the doctor. And homeowners will prepare themselves for unknown property tax increases.

"We may not have all of these numbers by Monday," Commissioner Tom Hanson of Minnesota Management and Budget told a legislative commission Friday.

That was not acceptable to House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, who has emerged as Pawlenty's chief adversary. She demanded an immediate and full explanation of what Pawlenty plans to cut from state programs. Pawlenty on Thursday said he will use two procedures to chop the state budget by $3 billion if negotiations do not produce a compromise budget by Monday's deadline.

Hanson told Kelliher that Pawlenty's budget-cutting plan is designed to kick-start negotiations. Kelliher viewed it differently: "It sounds like a threat."

Kelliher questioned Pawlenty's motives.

"They don't know and they don't want Minnesotans to know," she said of specific cuts.

Pawlenty's first budget-cutting action came late Thursday, when he removed $381 million in spending from a grant program for poor Minnesotans. The program helps fund health services for people who earn less than $7,800 a year and, in many cases, suffer from chronic disease or mental illness.

"These are the poorest and sickest amongst us," Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman said.

Hospital leaders and Democratic lawmakers say that not only could 30,000 people lose health care, but health-care facilities would lose the state aid they receive to treat those patients.

In a letter to lawmakers, Pawlenty said many people who used the medical program already are eligible for government-subsidized MinnesotaCare insurance. But it takes a month to process a MinnesotaCare application and people who take advantage of General Assistance Medical Care often do so because they are having a medical emergency, said Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, the top senator on health-care issues.

Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said Pawlenty administration finance officials Friday were studying what to do with the public school budget bill lawmakers passed. There may be delayed payments to school districts, but there will be no cut to education funding, she said.

"We do not intend to reduce education spending," Seagren said.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said the Legislature should pass a bill that delays some school payments while protecting at least 15 school districts that are in debt and would suffer if Pawlenty merely cuts spending.

Few negotiation sessions have been held between Pawlenty and legislative leaders, normally the format used to finish work on complex budget issues.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature sent Republican Pawlenty bills spending $34 billion over the next two years. But at this point it appears just $31 billion in revenues will be available.

The next two-year budget begins July 1, and Pawlenty said his new plan means there will be no special legislative session or government shutdown regardless of how negotiations go.

Pawlenty announced Thursday that he will line-item veto spending from most budget bills. He must complete that first step today on bills funding education, state agencies and public works.

Then, he will use an executive procedure called unallotment to further reduce spending for a total of $3 billion.

Pawlenty said he will unallot some state money destined for local governments, although he did not say how big the cuts will be.

Cities complained that the cuts will force up property tax payments, but without a tax bill such the $1 billion package that Pawlenty vetoed there is nothing they can do other than cut programs because they already are in the middle of their 2009 budgets.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, warned that while any local aid cuts will increase property taxes, Pawlenty has a fair amount of leeway in deciding which communities will receive the biggest cuts.

Democrats plan to go door-to-door in many Minnesota communities, encouraging residents to ask Pawlenty to change his position in the session's final hours.

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