The Minnesota House passed legislation to keep state government running at current base funding levels if an agreement isn't reached on a new two-year budget. Legislators planned to work into the night if necessary to pass four major budget bills, as well as a bonding bill for public works projects. It's still unclear if Gov. Tim Pawlenty will accept any of the bills, or if the session will end by Monday's required adjournment.
DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm says he hopes the backup plan isn't needed.
"It is my hope, and I think the intention of the Legislature and the governor, to end this session on time with a complete budget," he said. "But as the Boy Scouts say, we should always be prepared."
With only five days left in the legislative session, Republicans accused DFL leaders of throwing in the towel on budget negotiations with their so-called "Lights On" bill. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall said the measure would still leave the state with a massive budget deficit.
"So if this bill passes, and we fund everything at base level starting July 1, we're going to run out of cash at some point," he said. "Lazy, lazy budgeting. Absolutely irresponsible."
The House and Senate passed a budget bill covering agriculture, veterans and military affairs. The measure trims farm programs, including a 20 percent reduction in ethanol producer payments. Veterans programs escaped cuts by tapping unused money in the state's GI Bill account. With Minnesota facing a $4.6 billion deficit, DFL Senator Jim Vickerman of Tracy says he was pleased with the compromise.
"Is it a perfect bill? No. But it's a close to perfect as we're going to get," he said.
The budget bill for higher education tries to hold down tuition increases to roughly 3 percent at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. DFL Senator Sandy Pappas of St. Paul says the state's share of federal economic stimulus money helped soften higher education cuts.
"You know we have a difficult situation whenever you have to cut," she said. "And so we're actually happy that with fiscal stimulus money we got, and with the cut we had to do in the systems, the bottom line was it was a net 2 percent cut." A compromise education bill would keep K-12 school funding flat for the next two years. House and Senate negotiators also set aside a provision to delay payments to school districts, but the accounting shift could still come into play in the final budget deal.
Republican Representative Pat Garofalo of Farmington said the education bill was a disappointment, and he's counting on the governor to veto it.
"In the areas of funding, reform and mandate relief we think that it is severely lacking," he said. "And we're hoping that we're going to see a better bill passed by the end of the session."
DFL Representative Mindy Greiling of Roseville, chair of the House K-12 Education Finance Division, is also expecting a veto. She says the governor wanted more money for his teacher pay initiatives and other items. But Greiling says the House and Senate also had some good ideas for improving schools.
"The idea that his reforms have to come to the front of the line, and the legislative reforms that are worked on thoughtfully, unlike most of his reforms, have to go to the end of the line is just not going to fly around here," she said. "He can't get his way on everything and be a bully and then sit there and say I will never compromise from January to May."
Legislators also passed a $299 million borrowing plan that pays for public works projects ranging from flood mitigation to the repair and renovation of college buildings. The House author is expecting the governor to use his line-item veto authority to reduce the bill to about $200 million.
Pawlenty sent a letter to House and Senate leaders saying he was disappointed they were passing budget bills without a viable plan for paying for them. Democrats countered with a letter of their own saying they were appreciative of the governor's willingness to consider signing the remaining bills.