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Column: Not much more money available for state lawmaker

ST. PAUL -- The key to the 2006 legislative session came before lawmakers even returned to the Capitol. A budget forecast released Tuesday, the day before the Legislature convened for the year, showed $181 million more would be available to the s...

ST. PAUL -- The key to the 2006 legislative session came before lawmakers even returned to the Capitol.

A budget forecast released Tuesday, the day before the Legislature convened for the year, showed $181 million more would be available to the state than economists predicted in November. However, $93 million already is promised to bring state payments to school districts up to date, leaving $88 million available for legislators to spend.

A slow job market is holding back Minnesota's economy, State Economist Tom Stinson said. A weaker than expected economy means less tax is being collected.

However, the $88 million surplus and a $317 million account destined for tax relief are in danger. The state Supreme Court next month hears arguments that the new cigarette fee is unconstitutional, which would put a hole of up to $400 million in the state budget.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty plans to release his plan to divide up any available money in the next few days.

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Funeral protest ban advances

A ban on protests that disrupt funerals could be heard by the full House as early as Wednesday after committees gave the proposal unanimous approval Wednesday and Friday.

A Senate committee approved a similar bill Thursday.

Some legislators questioned whether banning protests violates 1st Amendment free speech rights, but no one opposed the measure.

The bill that would keep protesters 1,000 feet from a funeral was put on the fast track after a recent protest at a soldier's funeral in Anoka. Legislators originally just wanted to ban protests near military funerals, but decided it has a better chance of being constitutional if it was broadened to include all funerals.

Eminent domain restrictions move

Minnesota local governments' authority to take public property from private landowners should be limited if the land is to be used for business, two House committees have decided.

Committees passed the bill Wednesday and Friday. It has more committee stops, although House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he expects the bill to receive a full House vote in a few days.

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Moorhead City Manager Bruce Messelt told a committee Friday that it is important for cities to retain eminent domain powers in order to help businesses develop.

House, Senate health care plans different

The House and Senate are headed in different directions in their plans to improve Minnesota's health care.

Leaders in the two chambers offered their proposals Thursday.

Democrats want to use $122 million excess in a health fund to expand MinnesotaCare, the state insurance plan for those who cannot otherwise get insurance. They also want a constitutional amendment that guarantees Minnesotans the right to health care.

Republicans propose using the $122 million to repeal a small-business surcharge so those employers would better be able to afford health insurance for their workers.

Two privacy plans take varied routes

Gov. Tim Pawlenty Thursday proposed making most data Minnesotans provide the state private, contrasting with Attorney General Mike Hatch's desire to leave data generally public.

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Both say they want to stop identity theft.

Pawlenty would make all driver's license information private. He also would make it a crime to use private telephone records without permission and limit the use of Social Security numbers as a means of identification.

Panel barely OKs classroom plan

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 2006 education priority faces a murky future after a Thursday evening committee vote.

The House Education Policy Committee voted 15-14 to approve a bill, and sent it to the full House, written by Rep. Karen Klinzing, R-Woodbury, and supported by Pawlenty to require 70 percent of school funding to be directed to classrooms. However, the committee did not recommend that the House pass the bill. Usually when a bill goes to the House, it includes a recommendation that is passes.

Unless there is a change, it appears Democrats will oppose the measure, with enough Republicans to defeat it.

The proposal is not advancing in the Senate.

Gay marriage dispute continues

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Arguments the last two years over whether Minnesota needs a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages carried over as legislators prepared to begin the 2006 session.

On Monday, Republican leaders announced they would send videos to party members around the state seeking support for the amendment. On Tuesday, a pro-amendment group named a "gang of 12" senators who it says is blocking a vote by the full Senate.

Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, was expected to attempt to get a vote on the amendment on Wednesday, when the Legislature convened. However, she was hospitalized having an appendectomy.

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