By Scott Wente, St. Paul Capitol Bureau
ST. PAUL - Minnesota lawmakers return to work at noon Tuesday. Top issues facing lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the 2009 legislative session include:
Balancing the state budget: By far the biggest issue, a budget deficit that could top $6 billion needs fixing. A bad economy means less state revenue is expected in the next budget period, even as costs are projected to increase. There is no easy or clear answer to erasing the deficit and writing a new two-year state budget of around $32 billion. Policymakers say necessary spending cuts will affect many Minnesotans.
Protecting kids, cops and vets: Pawlenty says he wants to avoid painful budget cuts to education, public safety and veteran-related programs. The Democrat-controlled Legislature lists similar priorities. But expect a fight over funding for health and human service programs, the second-largest recipient of state dollars.
Debating taxes: Even lawmakers most inclined to raise state taxes acknowledge that alone will not solve the budget crisis, and it is an unlikely solution given Pawlenty's opposition and the tough economy. Legislators say property taxes could increase, though, if state aid to local governments is cut.
Borrowing for public works projects: If a federal economic stimulus plan includes funding for state infrastructure, lawmakers may ignore a guideline on state borrowing and push a big "bonding bill" to fund public projects like road construction and building maintenance.
Anticipating the unknown: Even though budget issues will dominate talk at the Capitol, lawmakers will find other topics to discuss. That could include election-related proposals, some stemming from the unresolved U.S. Senate race. Look for an early-voting proposal and an attempt to improve Minnesota's absentee voting process.