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No special session, leaders say

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's state budget will be completed before the Legislature ends its session Monday night, legislative leaders pledged after leaving negotiations early Sunday.

"It's very do-able," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, another Minneapolis Democrat, agreed and said talks can go right up to the midnight Monday adjournment deadline.

"We don't think there will be a special session under any circumstance," Pogemiller added.

"We need a little bit more time to get some information," Kelliher said when she and Pogemiller left the governor's office at 1:45 a.m. Sunday. "We have some people out there working."

Negotiations continued off and on through the day and night Saturday and early Sunday as legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Pawlenty discussed compromises to finish a $35 billion, two-year budget.

Health, education and tax issues appeared to be the major matters left unresolved Saturday night.

Legislative leaders and Pawlenty have met regularly since Tuesday and by late Friday sounded like they were near a budget deal. Early Saturday, talks ended with a glum attitude from leaders, who on Saturday began sending budget bills through committees without Pawlenty's backing.

Pawlenty has approved just $2.6 billion worth of spending out of the $35 billion budget, after vetoing most of the rest of the budget because it spends more than he wanted.

Only a few Minnesota lawmakers were involved in deciding how to craft a two-year state budget on Saturday, leaving most of the 201 legislators sitting on the sidelines frustrated.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, disagreed with Pogemiller and said he thinks lawmakers will miss their Monday constitutional deadline to finish.

"I don't see any way we're going to get out of here on time," the veteran lawmaker said.

A first-term lawmaker, Democrat Rep. Dave Olin of Thief River Falls, said his concerns increase as time goes on.

"I get frustrated," Olin said. "But I'm a realist. This is how the system works."

The one constant that's existed in recent special sessions, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm said, has been "the Pawlenty factor."

Compromise is difficult with the Republican governor, since "he doesn't know what the word means," said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

But when it comes to successful communications, top Democrats are the guilty parties, said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead. He said Pogemiller is the reason there hadn't been a breakthrough.

"If Sen. Pogemiller is still at the center of deliberations, I think our chances for a special session are pretty great," Lanning said.

Many freshmen - often left in the dark by leaders - said they are putting their trust in their leaders.

"Forty-four of us couldn't be in the room together hammering this out," said Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt.

What frustrates Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, is that the public isn't being told what the sticking points are in the high level talks. If they knew, Olson suspected "they wouldn't be very hopeful."

Skogen summed up the situation: "Nobody tells me anything."

Lawmakers still must pass bills funding public schools, higher education, health and human services, economic development and state agencies. An agreement on taxes also is needed.

Legislators also are considering overturning a Pawlenty veto of a transportation funding bill that would increase the state gasoline tax.

Without a budget, the Legislature would need to return for a special session. A new budget needs to be passed by July 1 or state government would face a shutdown.

House-Senate committees responsible for crafting the remaining six budget bills met sporadically Saturday but had little to do without an agreement among Pawlenty and key lawmakers about how much money can be spent in each area.

Langseth hinted the Legislature still could pass a bill funding public works construction projects before the regular session ends Monday. Langseth prepared a bill that calls for the state to borrow $14.4 million for a University of Minnesota bioscience building project. The Legislature had passed a much larger bill funding many projects, but Pawlenty vetoed it.

Other projects could be attached to the bill during Senate floor debate, he said.

One of the projects in the vetoed bill is an addition to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Pawlenty and legislative leaders support it, but on Saturday night it was not clear if it will surface again this session.

The state's education funding formula loomed as a major hurdle in high-level talks, said a negotiator on the House-Senate education funding committee.

"That's the stumbling block," said Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport.

Cuts proposed by high-level negotiators to the health and human services bill were "cutting to the bone," said Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, noted that the latest proposal would fund state long-term care facilities at a lower rate than conferees earlier agreed.

"This is what the governor wanted to spend," said Huntley, a co-chairman of the health conference committee.

The Senate passed, and the House was expected to follow, a game and fish bill changing where all-terrain vehicles can drive in state forests.

The compromise bill generally allows riding only on mapped trails. However, ATVs also could use forest access routes in forests north of U.S. 2.

The mapped-route requirement would begin only when maps are available, probably in about two years.

The bill makes no changes in keeping the Munger Trail free of motorized vehicles. A House proposal could have allowed motorized vehicles on the northeastern Minnesota trail, but House and Senate negotiators changed the bill to forbid motorized vehicles.

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.