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Lawmakers lay blame for budget stalemate

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers agree the whopping budget deficit they faced this legislative session was no surprise, but point fingers across the political aisle when assigning blame for lack of a budget deal.

The Legislature ended its 2009 session Monday night without a tidy conclusion to its main order of business - solving a $4.6 billion deficit in the next two-year state budget.

Democrats who control the Legislature sent budget bills to Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but the Republican governor said he would be forced to unilaterally balance the budget on his own because the DFL plan spent $3 billion more than the state will collect.

Pawlenty's refusal to consider new taxes in light of this year's $4.6 billion deficit was irresponsible, said Democrats like Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon. The DFL wanted to raise taxes or other revenue of $1 billion, he said.

"It's going to be absolutely horrible," Langseth said of Pawlenty's upcoming spending cuts.

Pawlenty will "catch the heat" for cutting spending on his own, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen said, but Democrats were unwilling to make tough budget decisions.

The Legislature, led by Democrats, met for five months and did not get its job done, said Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

The legislative session was "poorly run on a timely fashion," added Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Democrats passed their spending bills too early, Howes said. With stark differences on tax issues, that gave Pawlenty an opening to announce he would balance the budget on his own if no agreement was reached.

"He was pretty clear," Howes said.

Any chance of a budget deal was hurt by House and Senate Democratic leaders' desire to grill Pawlenty administration officials for hours on end before a legislative commission, Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk said.

Those public meetings strained relations between the administration and the Legislature, the Cook Democrat said.

"You didn't help the deal any by continuing to drive that wedge," said Bakk, who rarely attended the lengthy commission meetings. "Things get personal and then it gets really hard for people to give some ground and come to some consensus when people have been beating each other up publicly."

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, both Minneapolis Democrats, led those commission meetings. Kelliher has said they were helpful because the public had an opportunity learn about the state budget. Often, budget deals are settled behind closed doors, she said.

"What did they get?" Bakk said. "They didn't get a (budget) deal."

Bakk, a 2010 governor candidate, said he gave the Pawlenty administration an alternative budget offer in the session's final hours, but the governor objected to his proposed income tax surcharge.

Policymakers may face a state budget deficit of between $3 billion and $4 billion in two years, partially because this year's Legislature did not take action to fix future budgets, Bakk said.

"This is an irresponsible conclusion," he said.

Democrats were not unified for most of the session, Rep. Doug Magnus said. The Slayton Republican said that House Democrats proposed a tax plan and Senate DFLers offered a different tax proposal, "and they never could come to an agreement."

Despite all the problems, especially with the budget, the session was not all bad for Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

"It is the most relaxing session I have had," the fifth-term lawmaker said.

The end was especially unstressful, he said, after Pawlenty announced last week that he would not call a special session. "You know for sure what the end will be."

Marquart was one of the tax policy leaders who failed to convince colleagues to override a Pawlenty tax veto Sunday, but the defeat did not stop Marquart from calling the day "great." Pawlenty signed a public works bill providing flood prevention and recovery funding, Marquart said, which was the most important thing for the western Minnesota legislator's district.

"I'm satisfied with it," he said of the legislative session. "The high point was being able to provide flood mitigation and recovery for the Red River Valley."

Mixed feelings

Not everything this session was good.

"When you take the flood stuff out of it, I am pretty mixed," Marquart said. "We preserved education, but it is very uncertain about LGA (local government payments) and property tax increases."

Marquart is House property taxes chairman and had reform provisions in a tax bill Pawlenty vetoed.

As a government teacher, Marquart questioned Pawlenty's decision to announce last Thursday that he would cut budgets on his own.

"I thought he drew a line in the sand way too early," Marquart said. "I don't know why he would want to put it (cutting budgets) in his own hands."

Pawlenty's budget-cutting plan is historic, Marquart said. "I don't think it is a good historic thing."

Democrats did their work by passing budget bills, but Pawlenty was unwilling to compromise, said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.

Eken said the DFL majority make compromises in the session's final days - "short of giving him everything he wanted."

"He's going to get the cuts that he wanted," Eken said of Pawlenty's plan to unilaterally cut state spending.

State budgets should not be set through unallotment, Eken said.

"I really see it as a misuse of that tool and a misuse of his power," he said of the governor.

Unallotment should be used for budget emergencies, "not as a weapon in political warfare."

Rep. Andrew Falk wants to repeal the governor's unallotment authority.

The Murdock Democrat introduced a bill in the session's closing days that would strip the unilaterally budget-balancing power. Whenever there are decisions about how tax dollars are spent, the Legislature must be part of those discussions, Falk said.

"I'm very concerned about what these unallotments will mean," Falk said, adding that schools, nursing homes and military veterans using state health-care programs could be hurt by Pawlenty's cuts.

A first-term legislator, Falk said the session's outcome is "frustrating," but he added: "I can hold my head high because I voted to protect the people in my district."

The $4.6 billion shortfall that complicated state budget negotiations did not come as a surprise, Rep. Brita Sailer said.

"We had a huge budget deficit to deal with and everyone knew that from the outset," said Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids.

However, Sailer added, not everyone in Minnesota understands the budget problem. Some cuts in state services will not be immediately noticeable, she said, but hospitals and cities already are making budget decisions that could be impacted by Pawlenty's unallotment decisions.

Sailer said she is worried about how the governor will balance the budget after lawmakers leave town.

"It can hurt more because we don't have the opportunity to have some mitigating control over those cuts," she said.

Despite the state budget problems, Sailer said the Legislature passed a good energy bill. The legislation directs how the state will spend federal economic stimulus funds that are targeted to energy projects.

Northern Minnesotans will benefit from those energy funds, she said.

The Democratic majority in the Legislature believed strongly that new taxes or other increased revenue was necessary to balance the budget, Rep. Bernie Lieder said.

The Crookston Democrat said Democrats were right not to change their position, even after Pawlenty made clear he opposed new state taxes.

"If you do that," Lieder of bowing to the governor's position, "you abdicate your responsibility as a Legislature."

Magnus said Pawlenty was left with no choice but to unallot.

"I'm not going to be OK with what he does ... but absent any (DFL) plan, it's the only thing he can do."

The alternative would be for the Legislature to "sit here all summer" in special session, Magnus said.


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