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Cooperation is the key for Dayton and Republicans

ST. PAUL -- Gov.-elect Mark Dayton and newly minted Republican Minnesota legislative leaders promise to work with each other when the 2011 legislative session begins at noon Tuesday at the Capitol.

But neither Dayton nor Republicans who control the Legislature can lay out a map for how they will bridge their biggest gulf: a $6.2 billion budget deficit.

Both sides agree that things have not run smoothly the past few years between Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democrats controlling the state Legislature. In a Forum Communications interview, Dayton said that as governor he will not act like Pawlenty.

"I will not sit on some pretend throne" and just threaten vetoes, Dayton said.

"I pride myself on being able to work with anyone," Dayton added. "It is going to require compromise from both sides, from all sides."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that while a Democrat will be in the governor's office for the first time in 20 years and Republicans will control the Legislature for the first time in 40 years, perhaps the biggest change is that Dayton is not Pawlenty.

Dayton, Bakk said, will be able to negotiate with Republicans, something Pawlenty did not do with Democrats.

"If I remember him for anything it will be that he absolutely refused to compromise ..." Bakk said about Pawlenty. "That is why I think the Legislature has become so intensively partisan."

Balancing a two-year budget in excess of $30 billion will be top priority for lawmakers when they convene for their 87th session.

The deficit is Minnesota's biggest budget challenge ever.

"There are no good options," Dayton said.

While briefing the Capitol press corps on the 2011 session, GOP leaders said they will stick to their campaign pledge to not raise state taxes. But, like during the recent campaign, Dayton and other Democrats insist some taxes must rise to fund needed growth, such as more school students and growing populations of elderly and disabled.

As Dayton prepares to take office Monday and the new Legislature kicks off the next day, no one could say how the two sides eventually will agree on the budget by the time the Legislature must adjourn on May 23.

The leaders and Dayton already have met, a rarity for a governor-elect and new legislative leaders. They agree on making regulations and permits more business-friendly, but have not delved into controversial items like the budget and how to redraw legislative and congressional district lines.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Majority leader-elect Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said they plan regular meetings with Dayton.

The governor-elect and legislative leaders refuse to be specific about what they expect to come out of the 2011 session. Koch said it is too early for specifics and Dayton said legislative leaders "need to get their feet on the ground." Top legislative leaders are rookies to their positions, and in most cases to leadership roles.

There is no debate that the biggest issue is plugging the budget gap, the same top priority Minnesota policymakers have seen for years.

When Pawlenty became governor eight years ago, there was a nearly $4.6 billion deficit. In the ensuing years, Pawlenty and legislators from both parties have done nearly everything easy, and some things not so easy, to keep the budget in balance.

Dayton said that with the easy fixes gone, Minnesotans will feel whatever is done to slash the deficit.

Republicans lean toward using cuts to state programs as the major way to balance the budget.

Incoming House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said that approach "will inflect a lot of pain." He predicted that Minnesotans will force Republicans to compromise and allow taxes to rise.

"I think there is going to have to be some revenue in this solution," Bakk said.

In an interview, Zellers left open the option of raising user fees to help the budget situation.

Many Democrats mention the 2005 "health impact fee" Pawlenty proposed and legislators passed to balance the budget. Zellers said that actually was a tobacco tax and he cannot support something like that.

Dayton campaigned on a "tax the rich" theme, but a Revenue Department study showed that he would get less money than he had hoped, so he could be forced to continue delaying state payments to school districts to help the budget. He says he will propose cutting programs and find ways to make government more fiscally efficient, but like Republicans he has not released specifics.

Dayton must give lawmakers his budget proposal by Feb. 15. Lawmakers say they will wait until the governor releases his budget before finishing their revenue and spending plans.

Often, lawmakers do not produce their own budget until after the early-March release of a budget forecast that tells them how much money the state will have. The governor also revises his original budget plan after the forecast.

Don Davis reports 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.