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With budget, Democrats, gov. remain on different wavelengths

Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City uses a Capitol rotunda railing as a desk Tuesday as he looks through paperwork. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota legislative session could come to a smooth end if the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican governor could ag-ree on a way to raise $1 billion.

There is no sign that is about to happen.

On Tuesday night, the costliest spending bills and revenue to fund them remained stumbling bl-ocks to ending this year's session by Monday's constitutional deadline.

Legislative leaders were determined to finish the outstanding budget bills -- even without Gov. Tim Pawlenty's acceptance -- and vote on them in what promises to be a marathon session today.

But lawmakers continued to break their own deadlines. Tuesday was supposed to be the last day for them to send the governor compromise budget bills, but a half-dozen remained unfinished. Last week they blew past a deadline for negotiators to finish their work meshing House and Senate bills.

The key to bridging the budget gap seemed to be revenue -- Democrats want to raise taxes $1 billion, while the governor wants to borrow that much to plug a budget deficit. And so far, they have not come close to agreeing on a compromise.

Pawlenty last weekend vetoed Democrats' $1 billion tax increase, but that money remains key to the two biggest funding bills -- public education and health and human services.

Pawlenty said he is considering whether to sign the massive bill funding health and human services programs that passed Monday. Talks on the education bill continued late Tuesday.

There were no signs of an imminent breakthrough on outstanding issues as the governor and legislative leaders struggle to write a two-year, $33 billion budget while filling a $4.6 billion deficit.

Pawlenty termed the differences between himself and DFL'ers "a pretty significant gap."

Rank-and-file lawmakers watched the lack of progress from afar.

"I'm concerned," Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, said of the chances the budget will pass by Monday.

That was the attitude of many lawmakers, some of whom outright predicted an agreement is not possible in time.

Republicans said passage of the health and human services bill did not help matters.

"We are not going to get there if we keep passing bills like we did yesterday of nearly 20 percent increases in health and human services," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.

Pawlenty said health and human services program costs are rising so rapidly that they threaten funding to other areas, such as education.

Expecting a veto, House and Senate negotiators on the health bill resumed meeting Tuesday to prepare a new bill. They brought in people to testify about deep program cuts that Democrats say would occur under Pawlenty's budget plan.

"We are going to see what the public says," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the House health finance chairman.

Most testimony came from health-care lobbyists whose clients would receive less money than expected under the Pawlenty plan.

"We're trying to get the governor to negotiate, which he doesn't want to do," Huntley said.

Emerging from talks with Pawlenty, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he thinks the governor will sign bills funding agriculture, veterans, economic development and other state programs. But he and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, could report no progress on the major sticking point -- whether, and how, to raise revenue.

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.