Minnesota lawmakers struggle to end session

ST. PAUL -- It was a tall order -- fix the state deficit, lower property taxes, bump up school spending and reform the health care system -- that faced Minnesota lawmakers Saturday, the day they expected to be the last of their 2008 session.

ST. PAUL -- It was a tall order -- fix the state deficit, lower property taxes, bump up school spending and reform the health care system -- that faced Minnesota lawmakers Saturday, the day they expected to be the last of their 2008 session.

As darkness fell, the pieces began to fall into place, and legislative leaders maintained hope they could wrap up their work early today.

Health care reform was the first big area where negotiators found compromise Saturday, after days of saying they were close in all unresolved areas.

The health-reform agreement would broaden eligibility for both private and state-subsidized health insurance programs, improve the availability of health care information and begin caring for chronic disease patients differently.

"Given these are tough economic times, we got a little bit of expansion and quite a bit of cost containment," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth.


The health reform piece, however, was tied to the rest of the remaining legislation being negotiated in an overall agreement between Democrats who control the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty and fellow Republicans.

The biggest sticking point to a deal was property tax relief, as it has been for days.

Rep. Dean Simpson of Perham, the top House Taxes Committee Republican, said that even though Democrats late in the week agreed to Pawlenty's wish to implement a limit on how much property taxes can increase, the two sides still disagreed Saturday night about how long that tax cap should remain on the books. Pawlenty wanted a three-year cap, while Democrats favored a one-year bill.

They did, however, agree on keeping local government property taxes from rising more than 3.9 percent.

Details also were being worked out about how to send more state money to local governments and how to increase property tax refunds for at least some Minnesotans.

Until all the details were worked out, an effort that has been ongoing for a couple of weeks, none of the major issues would move forward, legislative leaders said.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the health-care agreement addresses health care cost, quality and access -- all of which Pawlenty earlier this year said were needed in a health care reform package.

"This has been something that has seen its share of hurdles and ups and downs, but we think the work product represents some good bipartisan work," McClung said.


The tentative agreement would provide health insurance for 12,000 more Minnesotans. It expands eligibly in the state MinnesotaCare insurance program for 7,000 people. An additional 5,000 who meet certain criteria could seek tax credits to buy private insurance.

Huntley said that under the compromise plan, health-care premiums would be 12 percent lower in 2015 than without the bill. Under the original legislative plan, premiums would have been 20 percent lower, he added.

While negotiators reached a compromise in health care, its fate was tied to whether a deal is reached on other issues.

"The progress that we've made in the area of health care reform is part of the overall package and the overall puzzle that we are assembling here in the final days of the legislative session," McClung said.

Today is the last day lawmakers can pass bills, although they could meet in ceremonial session Monday. But Democratic legislative leaders plan to fly around the state Monday, making stops in many cities, including Duluth, Bemidji and Moorhead.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, on Friday said Pawlenty and legislative leaders nearly had reached a deal to wrap up the session. On Saturday, such optimism was not as common. Committee meetings and full meetings of the House and Senate were delayed for hours while lawmakers awaited word from negotiations.

"We're coming down the final stretch," Pawlenty said Saturday afternoon, but admitted "there are some significant details that have to be reconciled" in every major remaining issue.

For most of the day, there appeared no rush to work, even though lawmakers faced an early Sunday deadline.


For instance, the House passed a resolution honoring Norwegian constitution day.

Many legislators spent time in the sun along the Capitol mall, eating at food stands and listening to music to celebrate the state's 150th birthday.

For a time Saturday, Pawlenty was signing autographs instead of bills, and was posing with legislative leaders instead of negotiating with them.

Most legislators and Pawlenty mingled with Capitol mall visitors. They watched vintage airplanes fly over the Capitol dome and posed for pictures. Senators, awaiting a group photograph on the Capitol steps, chanted "sine die," the term for ending of the two-year legislative session.

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