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Much of Legislature's work already done

ST. PAUL - State budget-balancing work dominates the Minnesota Legislature's final days, but this year much of the big news already is on the books - or failed.

The story of Minnesota's 85th legislative session so far is marked by an at-times frenetic pace, a controversial veto override, some little-known legislation and garden-variety policy disputes.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, view the session as a triumph in efficiency.

"I think we've had excellent leadership even though they were new to the job," Murphy said of Democrats who control the House and Senate. "By having early deadlines and getting bills out early we got some issues settled. We didn't have a stack of things waiting until the end. That has been a frequent criticism from the media and the public, but that's not true these past two years."

For some lawmakers, the session's premier accomplishment was overriding Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of the transportation bill, which raised the state's gas tax to pay for roads and bridges.

"That's the big one," said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. "It was so overdue and we would have been in so much trouble if we hadn't done it."

Many legislators agree with Langseth, including Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids. "The roads are in terrible shape," Sailer said.

Some little-known legislation survived the trip through the legislative process.

Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said he is optimistic about a new grant program for livestock farmers who invest in their operations. There is a small pot of funding for the new program, but it could grow.

"It we can keep some money in the program, it'll be a big deal," Skogen said. "I think dairy and some of the grain guys are going to look at that as an opportunity to update their facility."

A bill funding public construction projects got lots of attention, but not all of the projects paid for with state funds are well known, lawmakers said.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said 11 counties in his area of northwestern Minnesota could benefit from $150,000 being spent to study construction of a regional drug, alcohol and mental health treatment center for jail inmates. County jails cannot afford to provide inmates with all of those services, he said.

"This is an alternative way of meeting their needs," Lanning said.

Aside from securing projects in the bonding bill, lawmakers found it difficult to get new spending approved in a non-budget-setting year and when the state faces a deficit.

That means many proposals will return next year.

"The lack of dollars is a factor," Sen. Gary Kubly said.

Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, is trying to create a program in which more than a half-dozen counties could pool together to purchase health-care products and services at a discounted rate. But the fate of that and other initiatives was uncertain.

The transportation votes earlier in the session got a lot of attention - and angered many Republicans who stuck with Pawlenty. Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton was not impressed with the override, which he did not support.

"I didn't vote for the bill because I thought rural Minnesota could have, and should have, gotten a better shake of the stick," Magnus said. "That's been the theme of this whole session.

Rural Minnesota got the short end of the stick in education and healthcare last year, and the short end of stick on transportation this year. We pay in, but we don't get enough back."

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said while the bonding bill was a big story this year, he complained that issues important to his constituents were disregarded. Ingebrigtsen said he sponsored several bills related to illegal immigration, but none was given a hearing by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"It's rather unfortunate and upsetting," Ingebrigtsen said. "These illegal immigration issues should not be partisan. On the national front they're not taking care of it, so we on the state level have to take care of it."

For some in the Legislature, the economy and the deficit defined the past two years. In 2007, lawmakers began the session with a surplus, but grappled this year with how to solve a $935 million deficit.

"People think we spend money here like it's going out of style, but we fight over every morsel, every crumb," said Rep. Dave Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.

Dill said despite the "breakneck" pace of the session, the process was not immune to stalling as it came to a close.

For Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, the top priority this session became addressing the bovine tuberculosis problem in his area of far northwestern Minnesota.

He authored a bill specifying a state TB response plan and offering state funds to some cattle producers who allow their herds to be destroyed to prevent the further spread of TB. Lawmakers passed bovine TB legislation and Pawlenty signed it.

"For me, it turned out to be, by necessity, how to handle a bovine TB situation," Olin said. "I had to spend time taking care of a problem that needed to be taken care of immediately."

Rural Minnesota didn't do poorly in terms of state-funded construction projects. The so-called bonding bill was spread equally among the state's rural and metro areas.

Though Pawlenty trimmed the bonding bill by $208 million before signing it, the legislation includes university construction projects around the state, and event centers in Bemidji and Duluth.

"We passed a good bonding bill, which is primarily why we were here," said Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, pointing out that the even-numbered years in a legislative session are dedicated to passing bonding bills. "The projects that got passed are good for Minnesota."

Langseth, the Glyndon Democrat, leads the Senate bonding committee. Lanning said while he did not get everything he wanted passed this year, his and Langseth's area of the state fared well in the bonding bill and in other legislation, such as tax breaks available to five cities near Minnesota's North Dakota and South Dakota borders.

Skogen said a liquor bill he worked on could help some businesses in greater Minnesota. It allows farm wineries to make spirits and offer samples, as is allowed with wine. That could be a growing industry, he said.

"This may be some kind of rural economic development tool," Skogen said of expanding wineries. "It may be kind of an untapped tourism thing."

Though Democrats controlled the House and Senate, at least some Republicans, including Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, found the new majority in the House relatively easy to work with.

"These two years, in spite of the fact the Democrats outnumber us by a great deal, I think the partisan bickering has been held to a minimum," said Howes. "There are a few people, obviously, who get a little carried away and stir the hornet's nest. But for the most part, we kept our cool, held our tempers, bit our tongue, and let them have their say and moved on."

Sailer said the transportation bill was needed after the issue was not addressed for 18 years.

"It is difficult now with gas prices continuing to go up. But when the price goes up 30, 40 cents, just two cents goes to fixing the roads and the remainder is profits for big oil companies. So people need to keep that in mind."

Dill said the job of a legislator is "tremendously rewarding but tremendously frustrating at the same time."

"I see a mountain and people say you can't climb that," said Dill. "You get two-thirds of the way up there and maybe find out you can't get there. But at least you got two-thirds of the way there, and that helped somebody in a nursing home, or a project in your district."