Legislative leaders and Gov. Pawlenty may have gone to bed Wednesday night a little bit calmer than when they got up that morning. Early in the day, DFLers who control the House and Senate were prepared to send Pawlenty another round of budget bills that were not to his liking. But the sharp elbows and harsh words subsided as the day went on. In fact, Senate Republican Minority Leader Dave Senjem said the closed door meetings were productive.
"We're in a process that's maybe a little like making hot dish," he said. "We're trying to put all of the ingredients together and some we like and some we don't like. The tone and the tenor is good and that's the most important."
That hotdish is a $35 billion dollar two-year budget that funds everything from schools to health care to state agencies. Pawlenty and legislative leaders met behind closed doors several times throughout the afternoon and evening. DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller offered few specifics on the discussions except to say he hopes the talks may lead to a productive finish to the session.
"We're talking about how we can bring this to a conclusion in a way that works for all parties concerned but mostly for the citizens of the state," he said.
“We're in a process that's maybe a little like making hot dish.”Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester
Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall was a bit more specific. He said the negotiations focused on both money and policy. He said DFLers, who have been pushing for more spending in their budget packages than GPawlenty, will have to scale back their budget targets. He also said Pawlenty will have to drop some of his key policy items in order to finish the session on time.
"I would say right now I am optimistic that we can get done now more than anytime during the session in terms of the stars aligning," he said. "There's still an awful lot to be determined."
Seifert said the biggest disagreement is over the size of the health and human services budget bill.
The closed door meetings came as the House was poised to send another round of budget bills to Pawlenty. DFLers in the House and Senate had reworked their budget bills in the hope that they would be acceptable to the governor. The plans do not include an income tax increase but do include funding from increased tax enforcement and the closure of a tax loophole on corporations that operate overseas.
Pawlenty sent no sign that he would accept those bills which led Sen. Senjem of Rochester to worry that another round of vetoes would only increase the partisanship. Senjem urged DFL leadership to sit down with the governor to discuss their differences, which they did.
"I was very worried about the train wreck and the fact that if we continued down this path and we would see some more vetoes, lose our vehicles and have to reform vehicles and then it's Saturday and we just lost it," he said.
The House never took action on the budget bills. Republicans say the Senate, which passed the bills earlier in the day, agreed to recall the bills from the House.
The Senate passed the five budget and tax bills in relatively short order, leading some senators to call for lawmakers to slow the process down. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said she was worried that there wasn't a true public vetting of the K-12 education bill, the largest portion of the state budget.
"I'm having some trouble with us voting on this bill without knowing what the ramifications are and not being able to talk to our districts about what's in the bill or having any opportunity to discuss it," she said.
Several Republicans and Governor Pawlenty also criticized the size of the nearly $10 billion health and human services bill. Earlier in the morning, Pawlenty suggested that Democrats were sacrificing funding for education and property tax relief so social service and welfare programs could get more funding. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, took exception, saying those programs are more than numbers on a page.
"The governor talks about this bill and the budget in this bill as if its sterile and impersonal budget that you can slash here and save some money there," he said. "But this isn't sterile numbers. This is real people and real lives and there is a lot of pain in this state."
The Legislature has until midnight Monday to finish its work during the regular session.