Clock ticking as Dems aim to finish Minn. budget bills on time

Tax Conference Committee
A House-Senate tax conference committee meets at the Capitol Monday morning.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Democrats in the Legislature are working down a path to finish on time. It's just a question of which roadmap they use and whether Gov. Pawlenty puts up roadblocks with his veto pen.

On Monday, Democrats said they plan to pass the remaining budget bills with a placeholder for $1 billion in new revenue. The question is whether that revenue is new taxes - which Governor Pawlenty opposes - or other options like borrowing and shifts, which the governor prefers.

DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich said Democrats in the Legislature are reserving the right to try to override vetoes if they aren't close to a budget deal.

"If the governor isn't willing to be a part of the solution for the end of session, then legislators should take it upon ourselves."

"By the end of the week, if there's not an agreement, I believe that we definitely should provide choices and options for legislators," Sertich said. "If the governor isn't willing to be a part of the solution for the end of session, then legislators should take it upon ourselves."

On Monday, the House and Senate took action on several budget bills not knowing whether they're acceptable to Governor Pawlenty. For example, the Senate passed a public safety bill that Republicans say doesn't spend enough.

Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria said the state should spend more on prisons.

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"I think we need to send this back to the drawing board and pull the money that we need to satisfy this deficit from someplace other than public safety," Ingebrigtsen said.

Republicans say that someplace else is from Health and Human Services programs. They complained that the DFL agreement to fund hospitals, nursing homes, subsidized health insurance for the poor and welfare doesn't cut enough. But DFL Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said their plan cuts too much already - $500 million over the next two years.

"The reality is in this bill there are deep cuts. There are cuts to people with disabilities," Thissen said. "There are cuts to hospitals. There are cuts to nursing homes. No one is denying that. The fact of the matter that we have to keep coming back to though is that the other choice is to make the cuts even deeper."

Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor doesn't support the Health and Human Services budget bill. He also criticized Democrats for moving forward with a budget plan that relies on $1 billion in unspecified revenue.

"It seems like leaving blanks in bills during the last week of session is not very open, not very transparent," McClung said. "If they want to raise taxes, they should tell us that they want to raise taxes and try that. The governor will veto it. A wiser approach is to work with Governor Pawlenty and find some common ground."

Pawlenty tried to find that common ground by making a budget offer on Monday. His plan would reduce his level of borrowing to $500 million, would increase the size of the payment delay to schools and holds off on building up a rainy day fund. Democrats flat-out rejected the idea.

Meanwhile, Democrats are also moving forward with a backup plan that would keep government services running in case a budget deal isn't reached. The bill would fund government services at current levels through July first of 2010. DFL Sen. Larry Pogemiller said the bill is only "precautionary" in case Pawlenty vetoes the budget bills.

"Depending on what he chooses to do there, we would want to be in a position to make sure that agencies don't close down in case he vetoes a bill," Pogemiller said. "We want to make sure we have all options open to ensure that there's a nice, orderly conclusion to the legislative session."

The Senate passed the "lights on" bill 45 to 19. Several Republicans, including David Hann of Eden Prairie, said Democrats were giving up by passing the legislation.

"This sends a bad signal to the state, and if anything, we want to make every effort to get all of the budgets completed on time and this is sort of an out that we're premature in enacting," Hann said.

Senate Republicans are also ramping up the rhetoric over a possible special session. A caucus staffer handed out buttons to reporters that said "Special Session costs over $40,000 every day. Get the work done now." Lawmakers have until next Monday to accomplish that goal.