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Budget action scarce as ralliers hit Capitol; state leaders show optimism

Union leader Eliot Seide, right, works up a crowd of union members, the faith community and nonprofit organizations Thursday outside the Minneota House chambers. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- The bottom line: Stay tuned.

Thursday was a busy day in the Minnesota Capitol, but those dealing with the state budget deficit reported little progress. That will have to wait until today, Saturday or Sunday, the final days left to take action in the 2010 legislative session.

Still, things were hopping, as union, faith and nonprofit organizations rallied to encourage policymakers to increase taxes to pay for programs. "Do the right thing," they chanted.

Minnesota Vikings supporters roamed the hallways looking for new stadium support, but did not find much. Canterbury Park offered to give the state $100 million if the horse-racing track is allowed to open a casino.

Bar owners even circulated an idea to increase gambling allowed in their facilities, providing more money to the state. They plan to serve pastries and coffee today when they announce their plan.

Even with that activity, high-level talks to bridge a nearly $3 billion budget gap were scarce. Attention centered on a compromise health-care bill and, although negotiators were optimistic, they could report no real progress.

The main issue, as it has been for more than a week, is whether Democrats who control the Legislature can agree to spending cuts Pawlenty made last summer but the state Supreme Court last week declared illegal because he did not involve lawmakers. Negotiators have not settled on how deep the cuts would be.

There appears to be general agreement among House and Senate leaders and Pawlenty that the state will delay $1.7 billion in state payments to schools, although details remain to be hashed out.

Pawlenty showed an interest in working out a health-care deal shortly after he vetoed a measure the House and Senate passed late Wednesday.

While he continued to oppose surcharges the Democratic bill would have placed on some health-care providers, he hinted that there could be a compromise. He did not go into details.

Legislative health leaders met with the governor's staff Thursday, and Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said he remained optimistic a bill can be passed "that both sides can live with."

Being discussed are cuts to health care programs, as well as reworking health programs for the poor.

"It's important to us that they are having discussions," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said. "That had not really happened previously."

Once a health-care deal falls into place, Kelliher said, attention will turn to the overall budget situation.

The health bill would cut $114 million from the $3 billion budget deficit.

DFL legislative leaders say by adding $189 million in state funding to the $1.2 billion already committed to covering 82,000 poor Minnesotans over the next three years, the state would receive $1.4 billion in federal funds, and be able to cover more people.

"We think this is such an important piece going forward for Minnesota," Kelliher said. "It really helps our rural hospitals and clinics that are harmed by the governor's repeated cuts."

Andrew Tellijohn of the State Capitol Bureau contributed to this story. Tellijohn and Davis report for Forum Communications Co.

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.