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Questions abound about last legislative day

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators must pass a bulk of the state's two-year budget and adjourn by midnight tonight, but there are questions whether they can do that without risking governor's vetoes.

"We really haven't seen the bills yet," Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman said at 2:30 a.m., so the governor cannot promise he will sign the four spending bills and one tax bill lawmakers plan to pass today.

"With bills coming to us like this, the governor's office is going to carefully scrutinize each bill," Brian McClung said.

If Pawlenty vetoes any of the spending bills, it would lead to a special legislative session to finish the budget.

Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Pawlenty have met off and on since Tuesday, but have failed to reach a firm agreement on any remaining part of the budget.

The lack of a deal was evident in debate on an economic development bill the Senate passed late Sunday and the House followed early Monday.

"We addressed every one of his concerns," Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said about the governor. "We were very sincere in our negotiations with the Senate and with the representatives of the governor's office."

But Murphy could not guarantee the governor supports the bill. McClung, in fact, said there remains a chance he will veto it.

So after Minnesota legislators have met for five months, they must finish a $35 billion budget today with questions marks floating around the Capitol. So far, lawmakers and Pawlenty have agreed to just $2.6 billion in spending.

Usually, the governor and legislative leaders emerge from closed-door talks in the last couple days of a session to announce an overall budget agreement. For the most part, they have been tight-lipped this year, but when someone does talk it is apparent there is no such deal.

"There is no global agreement," McClung said. "This is the first legislative session in anyone's memory when legislators did not set (budget) targets with the governor."

For instance, a health and human services funding bill goes to the Senate and House floors today without Pawlenty's approval.

"The governor's office has been consulted and we told DFLers our concerns, but in the end the bill they produced is their product," McClung said. "The governor is reserving his right to veto or line-item veto bills that come to us in this manner."

"There will be quite a few hiccups," Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said of today's work.

He said he hopes the governor agrees to all the bills, but said since they must pass by midnight, some may receive votes with or without Pawlenty's blessing.

A public education bill costing $14 billion and the $11 billion health bill are the biggest ones remaining. Also due up is a higher education funding package and one that funds a variety of state agencies including the Legislature and governor.

Senate tax Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said early today that wording of two sentences was all that remained to be completed on a tax measure, both at Pawlenty's insistence.

That bill alone would need 16 to 20 hours of preparation before it could reach a full House and Senate debate, Bakk said.

The compromise bill would provide $138 million in property tax relief, down from more than $400 million the House wanted.

Besides the five budget bills, legislators may consider overriding a veto of the $7 billion transportation funding package. House leaders apparently are not sure there are enough votes to overturn the Pawlenty veto.

Also due up today is a constitutional amendment to increase the state sales tax to fund outdoors, clean water and arts programs.

Dozens of other bills also could be considered.

If legislators don't have to hold a special session to finish the budget, it would be the first time in the last four budget cycles. House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that would be a significant accomplishment.

Sertich said he is confident legislative leaders and Pawlenty will agree to today's budget bills.

"The bills are pretty close to closed up," Pogemiller said at 1:20 a.m.

He said he wants Pawlenty to agree to the bills, but did not guarantee that would happen.

"We want to make sure all three legs of the stool (House, Senate, governor) are happy," Pogemiller said.

At that early hour, he likened the situation to a young couple at a sock hop: "The couple is dancing, but they are not quite touching yet."

Commissioners and a few key legislators continued to negotiate after the House adjourned early today, but no talks between legislative leaders and Pawlenty had been scheduled. Pogemiller said those meetings would come as needed throughout today.

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.