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Minnesota Legislature: Session promises to be challenging

Bev Schillinger shovels snow from in front of the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday, getting ready for the start of the 2010 legislative session less than a day later. The session begins today, and must end no later than May 17. Don Davis / State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators return to the state Capitol today for a session that promises little fun.

Like kids who get clothes for Christmas, lawmakers will deal with the necessities, not the luxuries. And, frankly, there is but one overriding necessity on their minds: balance the state budget.

People around the Capitol understand that. Usually in the days leading up to a legislative session, one group after another parades out its leaders to tell lawmakers how important one program or another is and, by the way, that program needs more money.

That is happening very little now because the state faces a deficit of at least $1.2 billion in the current budget, which lasts another year and a half, and the gap could grow as Minnesota slowly recovers from a recession. The next budget likely will be in even worse shape.

Groups such as the AFL-CIO have called for increased spending on job programs, and many people support returning money to a health care program for the poor, but by far the majority of those under the marble dome know that 2010 will be a year of cutting the budget.

"They're all difficult," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said of making cuts. "Any reductions in spending at this point are going to be controversial, and many of them are going to be difficult. But it's no different than what families and taxpayers are doing across the state, tightening their belts, living on less - in some cases living on a lot less."

Most Republicans agree with Pawlenty that taxes should not be raised, and the budget should be balanced mostly by cutting programs. Democrats who control the House and Senate disagree.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said budget woes will not stop Democrats from looking for ways to create jobs, such as providing tax credits and paying for public works projects.

"Even in tough economic times, you have to be strategic about growing jobs," Sertich said.

The session beginning today likely will last until May 17, the last day the state constitution allows lawmakers to meet.

The state is operating under a $30 billion, two-year budget after spending $34 billion the previous two years. Pawlenty made many of the cuts on his own last summer following a 2009 legislative session that ended in a stereotypical dispute between Pawlenty and Democratic leaders.

Legislators of both parties are awaiting Pawlenty's ideas for trimming the budget.

Pawlenty delivers his State of the State address a week from today, and plans to release his budget tweaks at about the same time.

On Wednesday, Pawlenty told reporters that spending for the military, public safety and veterans' affairs should be safe from cuts and that he hopes to spare public school classrooms as well.

"Almost everything else is on the table," he said.

Some lawmakers call for long-term reforms, others limit their suggestions to immediate problems.

"Every year, we meet our constitutional responsibility to balance the state budget, and yet things in our state are not improving," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. "It's time to go back to the drawing board, reconsider how we spend and how we govern, and come up with initiatives that will put Minnesota back on the right track."

Marquart and other Democrats have proposed some tax changes, but it will be weeks before DFL leaders put forward their expected tax increase proposal. Pawlenty vows to veto any increase, making negotiations for a budget deal difficult because of the gulf between the sides.