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DFL pushes bill to keep agencies funded

Legislators, protesters, lobbyists and children on field trips jammed the Minnesota Capitol rotunda Monday, a week before lawmakers must adjourn for the year. However, several bills funding state programs remained stalled. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators moved Monday night to make sure state agencies can spend money even if lawmakers do not agree on a budget.

Senators passed the measure 45-19,with Democrats favoring it and Republicans generally opposed. The House is expected to vote on it later this week.

Republicans said the bill looks like Democrat-Farmer-Laborites who control the Legislature gave up on finishing the state's next two-year budget by lawmakers' constitutional adjournment date of next Monday.

Democrats, however, said it would merely keep the state functioning if no budget deal passes.

"This is a precaution," Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said that legislative leaders should be working with the governor on the budget now, not looking ahead to missing their deadline.

"I look at this as a document suggesting failure," Senjem said, calling it "an admission of the fact that we can't get our work done. This is a horrible message to send to the citizens of Minnesota."

Minnesota government sustained a partial shutdown in 2005 when lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty could not finish the state budget by July 1, the start of a new budget cycle.

Pogemiller's bill allows state funding to continue flowing to agencies at the same level as under the current budget or less if there is not enough tax revenue.

In the next week, lawmakers are supposed to solve a $4.6 billion deficit as they write a $33 billion, two-year budget. If they do not finish by Monday, Pawlenty would need to call a special session to finish the budget.

A new budget offer Monday by Republican Pawlenty met with Democratic legislative leaders' strong opposition.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, rejected it in a Twitter message as "not a responsible plan."

Pawlenty's three-part offer included:

  • Cutting his plan in half to borrow nearly $1 billion for state operating funds.
  • Accept a Senate-passed provision to do without the $250 million budget reserve he had wanted.
  • Move toward a House plan to delay state payments to school districts, which would save the state money in the next budget.

Pawlenty estimated that the three moves would generate $1 billion, the same amount included in a tax bill he vetoed early Saturday.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the offer does not move the Legislature closer to ending its work.

Sertich said Democrats will send the remaining budget bills to Pawlenty without the governor's buy-in if necessary. He said all budget bill compromises should be wrapped up today, or mid-day Wednesday at the latest.

Kelliher told a group of faith, labor and nonprofit organizations rallying for money at the Capitol that Pawlenty's Saturday veto of a $1 billion tax bill was bad news for segments of the population it was designed to help.

"On Saturday, the governor glibly and quickly vetoed ... hope for our schools, the governor vetoed hope for our hospitals, the governor vetoed hope for our nursing homes and long-term care facilities," she said to chants of "override."

But House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said that there is no way House Republicans will give Democrats the votes needed to override the Pawlenty veto.

"Minnesotans are demanding that government downsize, rightsize and economize to grow jobs without whacking taxpayers with tax increases," Seifert said.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce members are being encouraged to lobby lawmakers to oppose any tax increase. A Willmar Lakes Area Chamber memorandum, for instance, seeks "as many calls and e-mails as possible to our legislators. The message is simple - don't raise taxes."

In the meantime, state revenues continue to fall below predictions made in February. They were down $24 million last month, making for a $70 million shortfall in the past three months.

The House Monday passed on an 85-42 vote a measure that requires children up to age 8, unless they are at least 4-foot-9 tall, to be in approved child-restraint systems.

Senators have passed a similar measure.

Also, senators passed 36-30 a $2 billion public safety bill funding the Corrections Department, courts and other related programs.

The measure cuts $61 million from the public safety and courts, a reduction eased by $38 million in federal economic stimulus funds. It increases fees and surcharges $39 million.

Most agencies funded by the bill are cut less than 3 percent.

The measure includes $1.6 million to house prisoners in state facilities that now are in county jails. Counties long have complained they are paying for prisoners, who should be funded by the state.

The bill strengthens laws making it illegal to operate boats, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles while drunk.

The Senate voted 50-16 to order state officials to stop investing in Iran-related business.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said Monday's release of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi -- a 32-year-old Fargo, N.D., native - is proof "that economic pressure worked."

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said that in other situations "the sanctions we have been using may have been counterproductive."

A similar bill passed the House.

Among so-called non-controversial issues in a new tax bill is a provision to provide Moorhead, Dilworth, Breckenridge and East Grand Forks residents tax breaks for buying a new home, or one built in 2008 that never has been sold.

Taxes on the first $200,000 would be eligible for the tax break, $50,000 more than a similar North Dakota law.

Total value allowed for the tax breaks would be $2 million, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

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.