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Bumpy ending leaves lawmakers conflicted

ST. PAUL -- A Minnesota legislative session that started fast enough for some lawmakers to predict an early adjournment hit a logjam after the Easter-Passover break, pushing the finish to deadline day and leaving many with mixed feelings about their work.

Frustration was apparent with many lawmakers during the final days of a session that began in early February, as leaders negotiated with few results for days.

"We should have either started April 1 or been done the end of March," said a tired Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, a few days before session ended.

Some legislators, however, said the session had many positive moments. The frustration of the final days overshadowed many successes, especially early, said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm and others.

By the time they left for Easter-Passover break, legislators had twice passed measures extending health care for some of Minnesota's poorest citizens and providing nearly $700 million for public works projects. Second bills were necessary because in both cases first efforts were vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"We were very productive early on," Sertich said. "That's almost been forgotten about because of the budget situation."

After the break, however, several issues slowed progress to a crawl. Health care legislation passed by the federal government "changed the dynamics of the session immensely," said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer.

That, in part, was because lawmakers delayed negotiating budget balancing plans to see if federal health care dollars would be available to help close the gap.

"We were on very good track to balance the budget early on," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids.

The federal money never came. Then, with just more than a week left in the session, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unilateral budget cuts from last summer were illegal, leaving an early $3 billion budget deficit.

While some emphasized the positive, other legislators think Minnesota's biggest problems went largely unsolved with a lot of window dressing bills passing instead.

"It's been rather unproductive," said Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. "In the 14 years I've been here it's been one of the least productive sessions."

Retiring Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said the fiscal crisis dominated his final session and prevented lawmakers from considering many creative options for investing money now to save in the long run. He said most people knew coming in that this would be a tough session and they were proven correct.

"As with every session people come in with some pretty high hopes and then once reality sets in you start scaling back," he said. "Unfortunately this year the expectations started off incredibly low and went lower."

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, lamented the lack of education reform. "Clearly the school union has won the day."

While he liked the passing of a tax credit for people who invest in new companies and the compromised bill passed to extend health care to Minnesota's poorest citizens, he thought much more should have been accomplished. He suspects many lawmakers will pay with their jobs at the polls this year.

"I suspect the result of this session is a lot of Minnesotans are going to want to throw every single incumbent out," he said. "You know what? I can't blame them."

Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, said that some less prominent bills that passed, such as one providing alternative dispute resolution measures for homeowners and builders in warranty disputes, will help many people.

"At the end of the day you measure a session by the kind of impact you've have on people's lives," she said.

Retiring Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said very little of substance was accomplished this year. "That's not pointing fingers at anyone," he said. "It's just kind of a statement of reality."

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said some good things were accomplished but it took too long. He attributed the delays to rhetoric being tossed back and forth between parties and to wild card issues such as the court decision and the federal funding delays.

"Here we are in May just slamming everything together," Hamilton said.

Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said his constituents are concerned about how cuts will affect the state, He would like to see some additional revenue component involved in future budget balancing issues "to prevent us from cutting even deeper," he said. "We really have a conflict of values with (Republicans.)"

While going down to the wire on the budget was frustrating, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, noted that it often takes lawmakers an entire session to complete what they finished by the Easter-Passover break in late April.

The session went pretty well, but the budget process at the end would have gone more smoothly if legislators had finished the rest of their work sooner, said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth. "It would have given us more time to work with the governor," he said.

One frustration felt by Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, is that he felt there was not a real sense of negotiating coming from the governor's office.

"Negotiations are supposed to be give and take," he said. "All we've gotten is take from the governor and give from us."

The budget deficit has been accelerating in recent years and partisan politics hampered efforts to get to a long-term solution, said Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake. The problem got worse with the economy and now "it is going to take some time for it all to wash out and turn around," Dill said.

Larry Haws, DFL-St. Cloud, had mixed feelings about the session. He thought the Legislature did some important work but also felt the end solution to the budget needed to be more balanced between cutting costs and finding new sources of revenue.

"Easy solutions were used up a long time ago," Haws acknowledged. "I liked a bit of a balanced approach that we sent to the governor ... that got vetoed."

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, wondered why Democrats waited so long to bring forth a budget solution. He also questioned why they brought forth a proposal that included a tax increase.

"We all know where he stands on the tax increase," Ingebrigtsen said. "That's what is kind of hard for me to understand. It seems like we still have to run through this exercise."

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said the budget went late but there were not a lot of other major issues left at the deadline.

"People forget, we did a lot early," he said.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said he had two major hopes for the session: balancing the budget and getting a bonding bill passed early so projects could get going right away.

Stumpf was disappointed Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed several of the public works projects but still glad lawmakers got the job done.

"We fired that one out of the chute fast," Stumpf said.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead said the Legislature got some good things done, but he's disappointed at how long it took for budget negotiations to get serious. It leaves him worried about next year when the state is expected to have an even larger hole to plug. "This is nothing compared to what looms ahead."

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said lawmakers knew the main task facing them this year -- and likely for the next couple -- was balancing the budget.

The cuts aiming in that direction were tough and will continue to be so in the years ahead with larger deficits looming.

"It's a tough task," she said. "Nobody wants (cuts) to come to them."

Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co.