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Absentee ballot changes pass

ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans should find absentee voting easier this year than in the controversial 2008 U.S. Senate election, when counting stretched for months after the November vote.

The House passed a bill 131-2 and the Senate gave it tentative approval by voice vote Monday, with final approval expected today.

"It will enhance election integrity," as well as making it easier for voters and placing the same rules on all election officials statewide, said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove.

One of Republican candidate Norm Coleman's complaints about the 2008 vote was that different counties and cities used different criteria to decide whether an absentee ballot was valid. The measure that passed Monday establishes county, and some city, absentee boards that supporters say will make sure all jurisdictions handle absentee ballots the same.

The bill is "developing a new system of processing absentee ballots which will leave less room for errors," Sieben said.

Part of the change does away with the need for election officials to match two signatures, a major stumbling block in the Coleman-Al Franken race.

More than 300,000 absentee votes were cast in 2008, with about 12,000 of those rejected. Apparently, 2,000 were improperly rejected, enough to influence the Senate race.

"It makes a great stride forward," Sen. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley said of the bill.

Representatives defeated a proposal that would have required voters to show photo identifications before casting ballots.

Cut bills begin

Senators have begun to process bills cutting state spending.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said her higher education spending bill is like many being considered by lawmakers.

"As with all of our budgets, this is a very painful bill," she said.

Many programs in the Pappas bill would be cut 3 percent.

On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee heard an agriculture committee plan to cut $8 million out of farm-related programs, including delaying $6.6 million in ethanol payments to farmers. That is similar to what Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposes, but the Senate plan does not chop the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, based in Crookston, nearly as deeply.

Pawlenty would cut half of AURI's budget, while the Senate plan cuts just 5 percent.

Lawmakers are working to fill a $994 million budget deficit. Legislative leaders agree with Pawlenty that cuts are needed, but many Democrats also want a tax increase to help fund state programs.

'Open up'

The state Capitol doors should be open when legislators are meeting, Sen. Don Betzold told colleagues Monday.

But, the Fridley Democrat said, he has found Capitol doors locked several times recently when meetings remained in session.

"It is completely unacceptable that this building was being locked when we have legislative business going on," Betzold said.

If it continues, and he asked anyone finding the doors locked to let him know, he will convene his state government oversight committee and grill Capitol Security officials about why the doors have been locked.

The Capitol is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, with shorter weekend hours, but committees often meet after 5 p.m.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.