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Legislature ending: 'Who blinks first?'

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ST. PAUL - Since Minnesota legislators arrived in St. Paul on Jan. 3, they approved - and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed - $2.6 billion of spending.

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That may sound impressive to the average Minnesotan, but the two-year budget lawmakers must pass will be $35 billion, more or less. And by this time next week, legislators are supposed to be back home at their regular jobs, getting ready to take vacations or catching up on honey-do lists after being in St. Paul nearly five months.

There is time to finish this year's legislative work, but it is running out.

"I don't know if this is a game of blinking," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud. "I don't know what it is."

Leaders appear to agree that some breakthrough is needed Wednesday to successfully wrap up the legislative session by Monday, the last day the state constitution allows them to meet in regular session.

Lawmakers' main job this year is to pass a budget for the two years beginning July 1. Two years ago, they failed to pass the entire budget on time, forcing a partial state government shutdown because many programs were not funded.

Legislative leaders remain optimistic that won't happen again. However, they can offer no proof that progress is being made toward wrapping up a budget Pawlenty will sign.

"We're still in the all-talk stage," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said Monday while awaiting debate on a transportation funding bill Pawlenty frequently has vowed to veto.

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature blame Pawlenty for lack of progress, citing his opposition to tax increases that Democrats say are needed to adequately fund needed programs.

Republican Pawlenty says the 9.8 percent increase he proposes to the state budget is plenty, and legislators should send him budget bills that fit under that limit. And he says he won't sign any more budget bills until he knows how much the Legislature plans to spend overall.

In a nutshell, here is where the legislative session stands:

-- Three relatively minor bills, spending $2.6 billion, have been signed into law.

-- Five major funding bills met Pawlenty's veto pen, including the $11 billion health and human services measure.

-- Leaders are discussing what to do with the biggest spending bill, a $14 billion plan for public schools.

-- A $7 billion transportation funding measure is headed for a veto.

-- The House and Senate voted to raise income taxes on wealthy Minnesotans $452 million to fund property tax cuts, another expected Pawlenty veto.

"Time is running out," Clark said.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, talked to Pawlenty on Monday.

Most of the talking has been among leaders and top Pawlenty staff behind closed doors.

Clark indicated that key budget committee chairmen are ready to move forward with pared down versions of their bills, ones they hope Pawlenty will sign.

The major sticking point is whether there needs to be a tax increase.

"If there is not new revenue, we don't have money for new initiatives," Clark said.

Besides the new income tax dedicated to property tax relief, senators voted to raise income taxes on rich Minnesotans to increase education funding. Both houses propose other tax changes that Pawlenty doesn't like.

Democratic leaders complain that Pawlenty refuses to budge from his no-new-taxes mantra. They say they have included dozens of Pawlenty initiatives in an effort to get his support.

"We've done a lot of movement," Clark said. "Now the governor has to do something real. ... It has to be a real compromise."

Democrats also complain that Pawlenty is not engaged in negotiations and his staff was not available Sunday, when legislative leaders were talking among themselves.

Pawlenty's spokesman disputes that governor aides were not available Sunday, although Brian McClung did want to remind Democrats that it was Mother's Day.

"I'm sure there will be a multitude of conversations and discussions all week," McClung said.

If there is a hold up on sending the governor bills, it is not his fault, McClung added.

"It is up to the Legislature in terms of how fast they can process bills," McClung said. "They really determine the turnout time and capacity."

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Sertich said he has been around the Legislature long enough not to be worried - yet.

"It's disappointing we don't have a deal done," he said.

What usually happens near the end of a budget session is the governor and legislative leaders agree on how much to spend over all, and in general split it up among budget bills - such as health, higher education, public safety, etc. The governor and leaders usually also make decisions on the most controversial parts of bills.

While Pawlenty's people and legislative leaders have been talking, they have not come to that kind of deal this year.

Legislative veterans are not at the panic stage.

"I've seen it all get done within the last week," Sertich said.

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While budget talks appeared to make little progress Monday, the same could be said for finding a compromise to provide Browns Valley with flood relief.

The House passed a bill providing Browns Valley, Rogers and Warroad disaster relief, while the Senate only included western Minnesota's Browns Valley. Talks are on-going to find a way around the dilemma, but House chief negotiator Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said he is willing to agree with senators and go with a Browns Valley-only bill if no compromise is possible.

Browns Valley was flooded in March and leading policymakers promised a bill to take care of its needs.

Also Monday, a Duluth airport facility moved closer to becoming a free agent after House and Senate panels approved legislation releasing the vacant structure from Northwest Airlines' hands.

The bill, sponsored by Democrats Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth and Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown, allows new ownership to take control of the Duluth International Airport's aircraft maintenance facility.

The structure has been vacant since 2005, when Northwest declared bankruptcy and its workers went on strike. The bill lifts statutory provisions enacted in 1991 - when the state subsidized funding to build the facility - requiring the tenant company be headquartered in Minnesota and that 300 jobs be maintained at the facility.

Both bills will next face floor votes in their respective chambers.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Mike Longaecker contributed to this story.

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Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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