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Session done, but budget another story

Rep. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake chats on the telephone in an undated photo during a break in Minnesota House activity. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators met almost 19 weeks with one overriding job: Balance the state budget. They left the Capitol for the year Monday, leaving Gov. Tim Pawlenty to finish the job.

A last-minute flurry of activity failed to nail down an overall state budget agreement, which Pawlenty says means he will cut spending on his own. In the coming weeks, he expects to chop more than $2.5 billion of spending to bring it in line with expected state revenues.

Those cuts left many questions for local officials, school leaders and people who depend on state-funded health programs, all whom could see state funds shrink.

The 201 legislators debated a series of bills on their final day -- medical marijuana, seat belts and other issues that had been pushed aside earlier as the budget took priority.

It was a historic session because lawmakers faced a record-high $6.4 billion budget deficit in the two-year budget that starts July 1. One-time federal aid shrunk the shortfall to $4.6 billion.

The DFL-controlled Legislature and Republican Pawlenty agreed some spending cuts were needed, but could not agree on how to plug the entire deficit. Democrats wanted to raise taxes; Pawlenty did not.

Legislative leaders put the best possible spin on the session's outcome Monday, even as efforts to reach a budget agreement were failing.

"Pretty remarkable" is how House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, described the session.

In the final days, Pawlenty signed the Legislature's budget bills, striking less than $400 million in spending, mostly from a program providing health care for the state's poorest and sickest adults.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, admitted the two sides were leaving St. Paul without major agreements.

"We are left with some significant differences," Pogemiller said.

Kelliher said the session ended with "partial solutions," and called Monday a "sobering day."

The good news, she said, is that "there will be no government shutdown, there will be no special session."

Both were promises Pawlenty made Thursday when he announced his planned historic use of an "unallotment" law to reduce state spending without legislative approval. The governor is the only person who can call a special session.

In recent days, Pawlenty and legislative leaders met few times. In most years, such talks occur daily in a rush to conclude a budget deal.

Instead, Pawlenty commissioners appeared in front of a legislative commission to discuss the budget. As Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said, the commission never heard a bill, took a vote or made any budget decisions.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, blamed Democrats' repeated attempts to raise taxes for failure to negotiate a deal.

He complained that the Legislature sent bills spending $34 billion in the next two years to the governor, while agreeing with Pawlenty on just $31 billion in revenue.

"Democrats sent $3 billion of red ink out to the people of Minnesota," Seifert said.

Senators originally voted a $2.2 billion tax increase, while the House approved $1.5 billion in new taxes. The two chambers compromised on a $1 billion increase, but Pawlenty vetoed that and the House could not override it.

This is the first time a Minnesota governor is using unallotment to essentially write a budget. Governors occasionally have used unallotment to trim budgets when revenues fell below expectations near the end of a budget cycle.

Pawlenty has said that he likely will delay payments to schools to make up much of the remaining deficit. And it appears he will reduce state payments to local governments, perhaps by several hundred million dollars. Another expected target is health-care services.

McClung said no timeline has been established for when Pawlenty will make decisions on specifically what to cut.

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.