Budget negotiations continued Friday, even though Gov. Tim Pawlenty was 300 miles away from St. Paul preparing for the governor's fishing opener.
With just three days left in the session, legislative leaders and the Republican governor expressed cautious optimism that a deal can be reached to fix the state's nearly $3 billion deficit.
Pawlenty arrived Thursday night at a resort town near the Canadian border for the 62nd Annual Governor's Fishing Opener, a series of events being held this year at Lake Kabetogama. His staff insisted he could juggle fishing and finances, but stressed his schedule could change at any time.
Pawlenty said during his weekly radio show Friday morning, which he broadcast from the resort, that pieces of a budget deal were coming together.
"Progress has been made, at least in terms of an outline," he said.
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher has said there are several keys to reaching a budget deal. They include ratifying Pawlenty's budget cuts from last July, delaying payments to schools and shifting low-income people enrolled in two state health programs into a federal program under the new health care overhaul.
Kelliher said she's optimistic about an agreement with the governor, even though he's not at the Capitol.
"We're comfortable with having our people make agreements with the governor's top-level staff," she said. "The question is whether he's comfortable with that."
But Kelliher said Democrats will have a difficult time agreeing to a budget deal unless it includes a measure that expands health coverage for low-income Minnesotans.
Republican Senate Minority Leader David Senjem said he's also hopeful that lawmakers will balance the budget and avoid entering into a special session.
"I'd say we're five on a scale of 10," Senjem told MPR's Midday on Friday. "We're quite a ways away, but I think the mood is right, the demeanor's right ... So I think we can get there."
PAWLENTY LEAVES FOR GOVERNOR'S FISHING OPENER
Pawlenty left for the annual fishing opener on Thursday night, but told reporters earlier in the day he had concerns about the surcharges used to pay for the Medicaid expansion. Still, he didn't rule out signing on to the federal plan.
"We've been taking care of single adults without kids in one form or another, MinnesotaCare or our version of Medicaid which is called MA (Medical Assistance), for 15, 17 years," the governor said. "So, it's not a hard transition conceptually. We just have to figure out the way to pay for it and the mechanics of it."
Pawlenty also told reporters on Thursday that he would be able to continue negotiations with lawmakers despite being near the Canadian border. The governor participated in a 9 p.m. conference call Thursday with DFL legislative leaders.
ELECTRONIC GAMBLING BILL UNLIKELY TO PASS
Supporters of a bill to allow electronic gambling in bars say the measure could add more than $500 million a year to state coffers, but they acknowledged Friday that the effort is a long shot.
A bill to permit a horse track-based casino died in a Senate committee earlier this session.
However, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said he thinks the state's dire financial straits might persuade lawmakers to support a last-minute amendment to allow gambling in bars.
"Last year, we offered the amendment and it was ruled not germane," he said at a Friday press conference. "I stood up and appealed the ruling of the chair and got some pretty big stares. But the fact of the matter is that appeal only lost by three votes. And we had a lot of Democrats that voted to appeal the ruling of the chair, that that issue was germane. So maybe there's a few more that'll uphold it this year."
Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said he'd take up the matter in the Senate, but he admitted he doesn't know if it could win majority support. Pawlenty has said he opposes any expansion of gambling.
CANDIDATES TRADE BARBS OVER MISSED VOTES
While the budget talks seemed to be progressing, the political parties were busy scrutinizing the endorsed candidates for governor and the votes they have missed.
Democrats targeted Republican candidate Rep. Tom Emmer. Emmer missed several votes over the past week, including one on natural resources and energy spending, a K-12 budget bill and a bill that would have ratified Pawlenty's budget cuts.
Emmer said every vote is important and said he's working to mix his legislative job with campaigning, his family and his other work. He also noted that Kelliher, the DFL-endorsed candidate for governor, has missed 51 votes since she won the endorsement in April.
"If you check, Margaret and I are almost identical," Emmer said. "The other thing is we should be worrying about the issues involved and taking care of the budget so we can get out of here."
Kelliher missed votes on April 26 and on May 5, 6 and 7. One of those days, she said she, like Emmer, was touring the state to campaign for governor after she won her party's endorsement. She also missed votes to visit the White House for a Cinco de Mayo event and because of a campaign event with nurses.
Kelliher said every lawmaker misses votes, but she questioned why Emmer asked to leave just minutes before a vote on a critical outdoor funding bill on Wednesday night.
"It was unique last night to be on the House floor until 12:30 (a.m.) and to have a member, when I was not in the chair, come up and be excused seven minutes before a major vote on a major funding bill, that also probably included one of the most important conservation votes for sportsmen in the state," Kelliher said.
Emmer said if the vote was so important it shouldn't have been held at midnight.
Kelliher and Emmer are trading barbs like it's days before the November election, not days before the Legislature must adjourn.
Both may be judged by voters based on the results of the eventual budget deal, not on individual votes they may have missed.
(MPR reporter Madeleine Baran contributed to this report.)