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Deal eludes Pawlenty, lawmakers

ST. PAUL - It was a week before they must go home for a year, but with no deal to balance the budget Minnesota legislators Monday debated health-care reform, a constitutional amendment and whether to allow dogs on cafe patios.

On-and-off high-level discussions behind the scenes continued Monday as the clock ticked toward the mandatory adjournment date. But an overall agreement on the major open issue - how to fill a $935 million budget deficit - eluded Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders.

Legislators have finished most work they need to do this year, with just the budget-balancing action and deciding whether to pass property tax relief measures as their main tasks left.

Those issues are what have held up the session.

Without progress toward a budget deal, Democrats who control the Legislature said they might vote on their own budget-balancing bills, sending them to Pawlenty.

But after meeting with Pawlenty, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, both Minneapolis Democrats, said they temporarily would hold off on that approach.

"This should be taken as a positive signal that things are going well," Pogemiller said Monday evening.

Pawlenty, a Republican, said a budget deal still can be reached.

"I think there's some hope," he said.

Representatives late Monday approved 83-50 a health-care reform bill that Pawlenty threatened to veto; senators passed the bill 53-13 a short time later.

Rep. Tom Huntley, the health bill's House author, said the bill starts to reform the health care system while also providing state-subsidized insurance for more low-income Minnesotans.

"Does he want to be a leader or does he want to just say no?" Huntley, DFL-Duluth, asked of Pawlenty.

Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said the bill is fiscally irresponsible.

"This is our one opportunity for health-care reform and I think that we ought to be very cognizant of the fact that this bill has no chance of becoming law," Dean said.

Amendment moving

The House voted Monday on a plan that would prevent legislators from setting their own salaries and daily expense payments.

Representatives voted 91-43 to put before voters this November a constitutional amendment to create a 16-member citizen council that would determine lawmakers' salaries and per diem. Bill sponsor Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said it is a conflict of interest for legislators to decide their pay. Lawmakers earn $31,140, but also receive per diem and other benefits.

"We're here to do the people's work ... not to set our pay," Eken said.

Opponents said lawmakers should vote on their salary because it is an expense of taxpayer dollars. They also challenged the timing of the vote, which came with a week remaining in the session.

"Here we are arguing about our pay," said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake. "I think we should be balancing the budget."

A similar bill awaits a vote in the Senate. Constitutional amendments only must pass the Legislature; governors cannot sign or veto them.

Let dogs in cafes

Senators voted 59-0 to let cities pass ordinances allowing dogs in restaurants' outdoor areas.

Representative accepted the bill 110-23, over objections that allowing dogs onto cafe patios would be unsanitary.

The vote came on a compromise House-Senate agreement that in general provided stricter rules dealing with dangerous dogs.

The cafe patio provision allows cities to adopt permissive ordinances, but cities do not have to adopt them. And no restaurant would be forced to allow dogs.

The bill "puts in place extra strong protections that dog owners were held accountable to dangerous activities by their dogs," said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul.

Pool rules pass

Representatives followed the lead of senators earlier and unanimously approved tighter rules governing public swimming pool drains.

Owners of pools shallower than four feet would have to install safer drains by next year; deep polls would not need new drains until 2011.

The Senate accepted small changes that the House made, avoiding the need for further negotiations.

"Minnesota families will soon be heading out to the pool with their children for the summer - a time to relax and create great memories," Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said. "This is common sense legislation that allows parents to watch their children swim and play without worrying whether the pool is safe and properly maintained."

Flood bill OK'd

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Monday signed a bill into law requiring insurance companies to annually tell their policy holders if their policies include flood coverage.

The issue of whether floods are covered often arises during flooding, such as in southeastern Minnesota last summer.

"This new law will help consumers by giving them more information about their insurance converge options," Pawlenty said.

Standard homeowner policies for homes within flood plains do not cover flood damage.

Chemical bill vetoed

Gov. Tim Pawlenty rejected a bill Monday that would have banned from Minnesota the sale or use of a flame retardant and another chemical found in some children's products.

The Legislature sought to ban the chemicals, but Pawlenty said the prohibitions are not "based on established science."

"The legislative mandate overreaches and goes beyond current scientific research," Pawlenty said in his veto letter.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.