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Dayton, lawmakers don't agree on numbers

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Legislature's nine budget bills fall more than $1 billion short, Gov. Mark Dayton's key advisors say.

"While the bills purport to resolve the $5 billion deficit, they do not," Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans and Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget wrote in a Tuesday letter to Republican legislative leaders.

The two said they hope negotiations that began this week to resolve differences between House and Senate spending and tax bills fill the gap.

The commissioners wrote that the bills have a variety of holes, such as counting on receiving federal money that may not be available and overestimating savings lawmakers booked for some programs.

Schowalter and Frans complained that some GOP-controlled committees did not use fiscal information compiled by the administration.

As former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, put it on Monday, legislators and the Dayton administration have yet to agree on fundamental numbers.

The letter surprised Republican leaders, who met with Dayton over Tuesday breakfast. He did not tell them about complaints in the letter, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch of Buffalo and House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove said.

The two said they and Dayton agreed to work out base figures that all can accept.

Zellers said lawmakers still have not seen all of Dayton's specific spending proposals, something he would like before wrapping up budget negotiations.

The House and Senate each has passed eight spending bills and a tax bill. While a bill funding agriculture programs received negotiators' approval Monday, the rest are just getting started in the conference committee process.

Legislative leaders say they do not expect most conference committees to finish before a week-long Easter and Passover break that begins in a week. When they return to work on April 26, they will have four weeks left to finish a $34 billion or larger two-year budget.

Bonding or not?

Republicans who control the Legislature are sending mixed signals about whether they will consider state funding for flood-control projects this year.

The funds, which come from the state selling bonds, would be used to build dikes and other structures to prevent future flood damage. House and Senate committees have held hearings on the subject, during which city and watershed officials told of the need.

On Tuesday, however, the chairman of the Senate bonding committee said he does not anticipate any bonding bill this year, even one dealing with flooding.

"The immediate urgency doesn't seem to be there," Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, told a reporter Tuesday.

The fact that there has been little flood damage so far lessens the need for a bill, he said. And a $5 billion budget deficit means there is little money available for bonding, the senator added.

At the same time, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, told another reporter that he would look into the need for a bonding bill to prevent future floods.

Zellers said that he had not heard information that some flood-prone communities are concerned that if lawmakers wait until near the end of the legislative session on May 23 to pass a flood bonding bill that they may not be able to complete flood-prevention projects this year.

Officials of Oakport Township, north of Moorhead, say a bill passed before this year's flooding recedes would allow construction work to begin soon and finish before any flooding next year. But a few weeks' delay could mean the community would be vulnerable to flooding next year because gaps may remain in the community's protection structures.

Zellers and other legislative leaders plan to visit the Red River Valley later this week.

Online driver training

Legislators are looking into allowing students to take driver training courses on line.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said his bill still would require "hands-on, one-on-one" driving lessons. However, classroom time could be replaced by students getting the information from approved on-line classes.

"This is meeting the students where they are," long-time driver instructor Debbie Prudhomme said.

However, Cindy Thienes of the Minnesota Driving School Association told a Senate committee that she is worried that students would be distracted and not learn like they can in a traditional classroom.

House and Senate bills await committee action.

Capitol check wanted

Minnesota Capitol officials are so concerned that chunks of marble could fall off that they have erected protective scaffolding over many entrances.

Now a bill by Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, awaits action by the full House to require a structural assessment of the Capitol.

The bill would require the Administration Department to draw up a prioritized list of restoration projects by Aug. 1.

"We have one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the United States," Loeffler said. "Our Capitol is 106 years old. While the bones remain strong, many major systems, including the exterior roof and stonework, are in distress and literally crumbling."

An extensive restoration project began on the Capitol dome last year, with a major goal to prevent water leaks.

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