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Budget negotiators close in on deal

ST. PAUL -- Negotiators inched toward an overall state budget agreement Friday, with three days remaining in the 2007 Minnesota legislative session.

Little information leaked out from negotiations among legislative leaders and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, although there were signs of progress as lawmakers prepared for long hours wrapping up work on a two-year, $35 billion budget.

Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, remained optimistic negotiators could reach a deal soon.

"I think it could happen pretty easily," Bakk said.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, agreed during a Friday night public television appearance.

"I think we're very close ... pretty darned close," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, told fellow senators that he hoped at least four major spending bills -- funding higher education, health, state agencies and economic development programs -- can be passed today. "It doesn't have to happen ... but it would be nice if it did."

Despite some temperamental flare-ups, good progress had been made, Pawlenty said while visiting senators' annual potluck lunch Friday.

House and Senate leaders met with Pawlenty off and on all day Friday and intended to keep the talks going throughout the weekend if needed. Lawmakers are supposed to be in session today and made plans to meet on Sunday.

The state constitution requires lawmakers to adjourn for the year Monday. If they don't finish passing the budget by then, they would have to return for a special session or state government could shut down.

Public education and health-care funding, as well as taxes, appeared to be the major issues remaining up in the air Friday night.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said the talks yielded strong progress for state government finance, economic development and higher education bills.

Increasing transportation funding is not a must-do like other parts of the budget, but most lawmakers and Pawlenty say they want to do something. However, Pawlenty wants to borrow money for roads while legislative Democrats favor increasing the gasoline tax.

Pawlenty vetoed a 10-year, $7 billion transportation funding package last week because it included several tax increases. That bill was crafted by a House-Senate conference committee.

Unsure whether there is support to override that veto, DFL lawmakers on Friday moved forward with a second, stripped-down funding bill that only funds the Transportation Department's basic operations.

"Going from there ... to this is disheartening at best," said Democratic Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing, comparing the two proposals.

Murphy and a fellow key transportation negotiator, DFL Rep. Bernie Lieder of Crookston, said they want final votes on the so-called "lights-on bill" as early as today.

However, Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said he expects a middle-ground bill to emerge.

Heidgerken is a key to whether the House can override Pawlenty's veto, and has received about 200 telephone calls and more than 50 e-mails a day on the subject. He said he will hold out for a new bill that provides adequate funding for city and county road projects, something he said Pawlenty's plan does not do.

House-Senate negotiators approved an individual bill Friday that would fund Browns Valley flood relief, said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth. Previously, the $2 million was tied in with other communities' needs.

Marquart said the Browns Valley bill could be heard on the House floor today.

There is a "high likelihood," Marquart said, that two other cities asking for disaster aid -- Rogers and Warroad -- will have their requests placed within other bills

On Friday night, the House unanimously approved a bill allowing the Duluth airport to lease a facility built for -- and later abandoned by -- Northwest Airlines.

The House today probably will debate a bill increasing sales tax to fund outdoors, clean water and arts programs, sending it to negotiations with the Senate.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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.