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Fed money shapes Senate budget

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators hit the three-month mark in their 2009 session on Monday, and the Senate Democrats' budget plan just now is taking shape.

Weeks ago, Senate leaders said they would cut 7 percent across the board from state spending. Now, it is obvious that will not be the case, thanks to federal economic stimulus money.

Higher education spending, for instance, would drop just 2.3 percent under the Senate plan. Public school education funding would fall 3.2 percent and health and human services programs would experience a 5.9 percent drop.

Under the Senate plan, the state would spend $33 billion in the next two years, a bit more than Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposes.

One of the most controversial parts of the Senate plan is the public education cut.

"Under their amended plan the Senate DFL is still cutting K-12 education and raising taxes," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "It's a bad combination."

The budget began to take shape in recent days as Senate Democrats fill in much of what would have been a $6.4 billion budget with federal economic stimulus funds. Senators will debate raising taxes $2 billion to further plug the budget.

The Republican governor and Democratic leaders continue a back-and-forth debate about budget progress

"Not much has been done yet," Pawlenty said.

On the other hand, Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said budgets are taking form the earliest since 1917.

Vote on horizon

Republicans who support nuclear power are aglow after a Thursday Senate vote to lift a Minnesota nuclear power plant construction moratorium.

"The new majority," Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, proclaimed after the 42-24 vote.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, was not quite so optimistic. But he said he now is convinced that the full House eventually will take up a similar amendment, even though a committee last month narrowly defeated the moratorium elimination.

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, surprised many senators -- including himself -- by winning the Thursday Senate amendment vote.

Even though Republicans and some Democrats are happy with the vote to lift the moratorium, Seifert brought a dose of reality to the conversation. Anti-nuclear senators likely will dominate negotiations with the House, perhaps dooming its chances, Seifert said.

Rail line study

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has launched a study to decide future Minnesota railroad projects.

Pawlenty ordered Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel and the Minnesota Intercity Passenger Rail Transportation Forum to study the subject. The Republican governor and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat serving southern Minnesota, have discussed at length the need for such an independent study.

"We should consider every option, including rail, as we build a 21st century transportation system that assists economic development and better moves people and goods around our state," Pawlenty said. "Minnesota will compete for federal rail funds in a comprehensive manner based on data and analysis. The rail forum is already off to a good start and will ensure that our application makes the best case for our state."

Among two proposals Pawlenty wants studied are the Northern Lights Express between the Twin Cities and Duluth and a high-speed passenger rail services between the Twin Cities and Chicago.

"This is a once in a generation opportunity to make a significant investment in high speed rail and we need to make the correct long-term decision for the state of Minnesota and the country," said Walz.

Republicans argue

The most colorful opponent of one Minnesota House Republican's proposal to speed up the budget process was another Republican.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, produced an amendment to require the House speaker and Senate majority leader to resign if a budget is not enacted by July 1, the beginning of a budget cycle.

He said something needs to be done soon to get the budget completed on time.

But an upset Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, countered that a governor could veto budget plans just to get rid of the Legislature's leaders - now both Democrats.

That would make a governor "a dictator, not a governor," Howes said.

"We have entered the fourth month of this session," Drazkowski countered. "We shouldn't have to wait until the final day before we solve this budget. The answer is leadership, Rep. Howes, within this body. We have to bring up legislation that will get this done."

After a fiery debate, Drazkowski withdrew the amendment before a vote.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, lightened the mood when he joked that he originally opposed the Drazkowski amendment until he realized that if the speaker resigned he would be in charge of the House.

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.