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Final day, no final Minn. budget yet for lawmakers

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Legislature's 2009 session lurched toward a midnight ending on Monday without a balanced budget - an unnerving prospect for cities and counties, schools and people on state health assistance likely to face fallout in days to come.

Top Democrats emerged from a hour-long meeting with Gov. Tim Pawlenty to say that a $2.7 billion gap wouldn't go away. They said the GOP governor rejected every possible tax increase they put before him. They ruled out a $1 billion borrowing plan he proposed, using future tobacco lawsuit settlement payments as collateral.

DFL leaders said lawmakers would work to the last hour to try to narrow the differences, but by early afternoon they already sounded like they were looking back on the session.

"We feel we have given this our hardest work," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis. "For Minnesotans, what it means is that there will be no government shutdown. There will be no special session."

The adjournment deadline was firm this year because Pawlenty said he won't call a special session to complete budget work. Instead, he is preparing to unilaterally erase a multibillion-dollar deficit. The shortfall is $4.6 billion over two years, or $6.4 billion not counting federal stimulus dollars.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature failed in a push to override two vetoes on Sunday, including a $1 billion tax plan.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said adjustments to tax aids and credits were being considered for savings, while another focus would be health and welfare programs.

The lack of resolution could lead to higher property taxes if cities and counties lose state aid, budget acrobatics for schools if state payments come later, and an uncertain future for those who use state programs for everything from hospital stays to dental coverage.

As a fallback, Pawlenty said he would use emergency power to withhold or delay spending beginning July 1.

"The bottom line responsibility is balancing the state budget," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "So far, the DFL hasn't been able to accomplish that and the governor is prepared to do that on his own if he has to."

McClung said those cuts would be outlined as the July 1 start to the budget year draws closer.

While the budget talks bogged down, several policy bills steamed ahead.

After years of stalling in the Minnesota House, legislation giving police more power to ticket unbuckled motorists is cruising toward passage.

The House passed the so-called primary seat belt law on Monday 73-60. The measure has long fared better in the Senate, and Pawlenty has voiced his support.

The bill gives police the ability to pull over and ticket motorists solely because they or their passengers aren't buckled up. Currently, law enforcement must spot another traffic offense to make the stop.

"Our law enforcement officers are tired of going to an accident and having to clean up the mess that's left there, the heartbreaking results of people that are ejected from their cars and killed needlessly," said the bill's sponsor, DFL Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester.

The violation carries a $25 fine.

Minnesota has $3.4 million in federal transportation money riding on the change.

Opposition centered on whether it would fuel racial profiling. Others say seat belt use should remain a personal choice. "This is about how far we go in legislating how people live," said Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield.

An elections bill would move the state's primary elections from September to early August, which proponents say should give more time for voters to compare their general election choices and return absentee ballots if they live overseas.

An attempt to allow no-excuse early voting was removed from the bill, but there were other absentee ballot law changes crafted in response to the state's lengthy 2008 Senate race. Local election officials would have to make extra efforts to contact voters whose ballots are rejected and give them the option of casting a new one.

The Senate passed it 44-20; the House vote was expected later.

Pawlenty hasn't said what he'll do with the bill; his fellow Republicans wanted a requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls.

But Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the changes are too important to put off.

"If we wait to do it next year, most of the changes won't go into effect in the 2010 election," he said.

A House vote was also possible on a bill to allow medical use of marijuana, legislation that already cleared the Senate.