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Attention turns to state Legislature, budget: Money available

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ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's political attention now turns to the state Legislature, with occasional interruptions for U.S. Senate recount updates.

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State lawmakers face something that whoever ends up going to Washington doesn't - the chore of balancing the state budget (the state constitution requires it, the federal one doesn't).

Legislative leaders want to begin work on a new budget before the next legislative session begins Jan. 6. And on Monday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty flies around the state announcing a legislative initiative.

After five years of budget woes, things could get even worse next year. Some predictions are that a deficit of up to $4 billion (out of a two-year budget topping $30 billion) could face lawmakers. Many legislators say they have cut nearly everything they can, but still do not want to raise taxes.

For the most part, at least, the same legislative leaders will be in charge in 2009.

House Democrats voted to keep their top two leaders for another two years. And since senators were not up for election, other than to fill two open seats, their leadership does not change.

The interesting leadership decision will come when House Republicans meet Saturday. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said he is not sure he wants the job for another two years.

Democrats, who picked up two seats in Tuesday's election to expand their majority to 87-47, re-elected Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis as House speaker and Tony Sertich of Chisholm as majority leader.

The federal government has agreed to fund a program within MinnesotaCare health insurance plan to keep 18,000 parents covered.

Washington will send the state $100 million a year through 2011.

An August change in the federal program that supplies money to MnCare threatened to cut more than $135 million to the state. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Minnesota congressional delegation argued for the funding to continue.

"This will allow Minnesota families to continue to get affordable health insurance," said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "Minnesota has an innovative, successful program to provide Medicaid coverage to lower-income families. It's a smart investment."

News stories circulating in recent days continue to indicate that U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson is in the running to be federal agriculture secretary.

However, Peterson says as strongly as he can that he is not interested and would not accept the appointment. He said he recently talked to a high-ranking Barack Obama staffer handling agriculture issues.

"I wanted to clarify with him if they didn't already know after I've said this 100 times, I'm not interested," Peterson said, adding he has suggested others for the job, including National Farmers Union President Tom Buis.

Peterson, a western Minnesota Democrat, has much more power to shape federal farm policy in his current position as House Agriculture Committee chairman. He said he wants Obama's agriculture secretary to understand both farming and agriculture politics.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, House Transportation Committee chairman, has been slightly less firm about whether he would take the transportation secretary post in the Obama administration. He serves northeast, north-central and east-central Minnesota.

Legislators met with transportation officials and others last week, trying to find ways to provide non-emergency medical-related transportation in rural Minnesota.

"There is a real concern that in greater Minnesota folks are not receiving the rides they need to their medical appointments because of the system that is in place," said Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls. "It seems to me that many of the policies surrounding Special Transportation Services make these rides difficult to deliver in rural areas."

Kubly said he learned that the reimbursement rate for Special Transportation Services from the state has not increased in 10 years

"These businesses are being forced to cut back on their delivery of services because they simply can't afford to absorb these unreimbursed costs," Kubly said. "This, in turn, is forcing the use of more expensive ambulance transportation or extending hospital stays because of lack of transportation home. It seems to me that providing adequate funding for Special Transportation Services would prevent these increased costs to the entire health care system."

One of the best-known faces in the Minnesota Capitol is retiring.

Willmar native Patrick Flahaven will end 36 years as Senate secretary at the end of the year. He has fought cancer for more than a year.

Flahaven was born in Willmar and grew up in Sauk Center. After college, he worked for U.S. Rep. Joseph Karth before beginning in as a senate employee in 1971. Just two years later, he became the Senate secretary, the top employee in the Legislature's upper body.

He is the second longest serving secretary of any of the country's state senates.

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