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Saturday budget work goes slow

Rep. Kim Norton DFL-Rochester, works in the final hours of the session at the State Capitol in St Paul, Minnesota, Saturday. AP Photo/Craig Lassig

ST. PAUL -- Heritage Christian Academy students lined up on a marble stairway east of the Minnesota Capitol Rotunda for pictures before heading to their prom.

As students from the Maple Grove school laughed and jockeyed for position for their parent-photographers, a lone senator walked down the west stairway, briefcase in hand, heading to an event away from the Capitol.

The scene illustrated the situation: The public was enjoying a beautiful spring day while there was precious little activity on the budget-balancing front.

Legislative leaders met Saturday night for the first time in two days with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who cut short his trip to the Governor's Fishing Opener to angle for a plan balancing a nearly $3 billion state budget deficit.

Talks continue off and on Saturday night as lawmakers face a deadline tonight.

Regardless of negotiations' outcome, House and Senate leaders said they would pass some type of budget plan before 7 a.m. today, but Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, also said "the doors of the Senate will remain open" until the Legislature's midnight deadline for passing bills.

"It seems like in the last 24 hours, we have taken a step back," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said.

The biggest dispute Saturday night was the same as the last several days, whether the state would be involved in a new federal program that Democrats say would bring Minnesota $1.4 billion in federal funds.

Pawlenty on Thursday indicated he could accept some form of a health bill, but by Friday night he was calling it "problematic."

Without a negotiated agreement, Pogemiller said, a bill would be sent to Pawlenty by 7 a.m. today cutting spending and making other changes to plug the deficit. No new taxes or other revenue would be included, he said, because Pawlenty opposes higher state taxes. Pogemiller would not say specifically what the bill would contain.

Sertich said he does not understand why Republicans supported a similar health-care plan last year, but do not now. Holding seven $1 bills in one hand and one in the other, Sertich said that illustrates that the state would get back more money than it puts into the newly expanded program, known as Medical Assistance.

The reason Republicans now oppose the idea, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said, is that the Medical Assistance plan offered by the federal government opens the door to more people taking advantage of the program and it does nothing to slow health-care cost increases. He said people could move to Minnesota and get better coverage than existing Minnesotans.

The health-care program debate was a key to getting budget work completed. More than $100 million spending cuts in the health bill were part of the overall budget-balancing plan.

Besides the health issue, negotiators discussed how to repay a $1.7 billion school payment delay, essentially the state borrowing money from school districts, as well as specifics about budget cuts that could reach $1.3 billion in a $30 billion, two-year budget.

House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said the health bill is not needed and suggested that budget negotiators concentrate on other budget issues.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said hospitals, especially in rural areas, would benefit under the new plan.

"That doesn't go to our poor people, it goes to our hospitals," said Huntley, the House's health finance chairman.

Only four Minnesota hospitals have agreed to take part in a reworked General Assistance Medical Care program for the state's poorest citizens, with most hospitals saying they cannot afford it. The federal plan would replace GAMC, just revised a month and a half ago, and would open the doors of more hospitals, Huntley said.

Pawlenty was at Lake Kabetogama, near International Falls, Friday and Saturday morning for the fishing opener. After catching four fish, including a 22-inch walleye, the governor boarded his plane for an hour-long flight back to St. Paul.

If Pawlenty does not like a legislative budget plan, he could veto it. That would set up a new round of urgent negotiations in the final hours of the regular legislative session today or force a special session.

Sertich complained that Pawlenty is not negotiating.

"The governor is getting about 85 percent of what he wants," Sertich said, and Democrats should get something out of negotiations.

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