Little lawmaking left, but differences remain

ST. PAUL - Yvonne Prettner Solon and Keith Langseth both are DFL state senators, but differences between them illustrate the problem Minnesota lawmakers face as they grapple with how to fix a $935 million state budget deficit.

ST. PAUL - Yvonne Prettner Solon and Keith Langseth both are DFL state senators, but differences between them illustrate the problem Minnesota lawmakers face as they grapple with how to fix a $935 million state budget deficit.

Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, looked at that deficit and - realizing many cuts have been made in recent years - saw a more difficult problem than when the state faced a nearly $4.6 billion deficit in 2003.

Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, didn't worry so much about it: "It is going to be difficult, but if it (the deficit) doesn't get worse, it can be done."

Also, Prettner Solon promised a fight to protect a health care fund that Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to use to help balance the budget. "It's been raided over and over."

Langseth, on the other hand, is resigned to using money from the fund because if lawmakers don't, "we've got to find $250 million someplace. ... It isn't quite as bad as people think."


Those are just a couple of differences between a couple of senators who as Democrats should be expected to agree on many things. Throw in House Democrats, Republicans of both chambers and the GOP's Pawlenty and it becomes easy to see how difficult the Legislature's main remaining issue will be to solve.

Lawmakers are thinking about the budget and other issues during an Easter break that lasts through noon today.

The 2008 legislative session began last month with a bang, passing a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the sales tax to support outdoors and arts programs. Then came a $6.6 billion transportation funding bill, enacted over Pawlenty's veto. And senators kicked Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau out of the job.

The pace slowed a bit after the House and Senate passed differing public works funding bills, although signs are those divisions may be worked out in coming days. That leaves one major job left when lawmakers return from an Easter break today - how to plug the budget gap.

Capitol observers do not recall such a rapid beginning to a legislative session.

"In this first month, we have accomplished more than some legislatures do in an entire year," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said Pawlenty needs to be more involved in discussions about the state budget deficit and public works construction bill. House leaders have invited Pawlenty to a meeting on those issues.

In recent years, lawmakers usually have bumped up to their constitutional deadline, which in 2008 is May 19. This year, another factor enters in.


The Constitution requires them to wrap up their two-year work in 120 "legislative days" and they have just 27 left. The shortage of legislative days - when either the House or Senate meets in a floor session - means legislative leaders must spread out their floor sessions or risk running out of time even before May 19.

Kelliher and other legislative leaders hold out hope of getting out of St. Paul early this year.

But Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba said it would be worth spending extra time working on the budget deficit.

"The more you talk about it and work with it, you probably get a better budget," the Long Prairie DFLer said.

Assistant House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said the DFL-led Legislature will not dismiss Pawlenty's entire budget-balancing plan.

"We're going to balance the budget without raising taxes," Moe said.

House and Senate leaders already have a pretty good idea how their budget changes will look, although they don't want to talk about that until after they return from the break. A deadline forces lawmakers to make budget decisions by Friday.

Kelliher emphasized that the House will not allow cuts in early childhood through high school education programs and nursing homes. And her plan is to try to keep college tuitions from rising too much.


There is general agreement that to fix the budget problem, program cuts will be combined with using budget reserves and increasing revenue such as eliminating some tax breaks multi-national companies enjoy.

Besides the budget, the spotlight will shine on a public works debate. The state sells bonds - in other words, borrows money - to finance projects ranging from college building repairs to constructing events centers.

Pawlenty proposed spending $825 million, while the House and Senate originally voted for spending $965 million. Behind-the-scenes negotiations apparently have narrowed the differences and a public meeting on the issue should come soon after lawmakers return to St. Paul.

Langseth, Senate bonding chairman, said he expects a bill to be wrapped up quickly.

Senators have their assignments for Easter break, Prettner Solon said. They were to look over budget proposals and return today with ideas about how to deal with the deficit.

While Pawlenty complains in public about lawmakers overriding his transportation funding veto, Prettner Solon said he benefits. "The governor's got to be thrilled we passed that transportation bill," she said. "He's going to be there for every ribbon cutting."

Since she thinks Pawlenty secretly likes the new transportation funding, Prettner Solon predicts the DFL-controlled Legislature will get along with Pawlenty for the next two months.

For instance, she added, Democrats understand they cannot raise taxes this year.


Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he does not join with lawmakers who predict an April adjournment for the year.

"I think that's pretty difficult," Bakk said, but added there is not a lot left to do.

The way the Legislature works, he added, is that the work does not get done until deadline. And that deadline this year is the constitutional adjournment day of May 19.

Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, is among the few lawmakers predicting an April legislative adjournment.

With just bonding and budget as major remaining topics, he predicted getting out in late April.

"I think things are going pretty smoothly," said Heidgerken, one of six House Republicans stripped of leadership trappings because they voted to override Pawlenty's transportation funding veto.

Heidgerken predicted that Kelliher will decide that getting out early would look good for Democrats seeking re-election this fall.

The session looks like it will be successful, he said, in part because of the new transportation funding.


Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, encouraged serious negotiations to get moving on the bonding bill. "The sooner a bill is passed, the sooner people can get back to work and the sooner our economy can get moving," he said.

Like most DFLers, Skoe said that hundreds of jobs would be created by funding public works projects around Minnesota.

As a Senate tax leader, Skoe said that a tax bill that already has passed was a good step forward because it allows many Minnesota tax provisions to match federal provisions, making tax time easier.


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

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