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State budget talks get answers

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's top politicians could be excused if they are bleary-eyed today; after all, they pored over spreadsheets packed with numbers for much of Wednesday.

The numbers show how property tax relief proposals by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democrats who control the Legislature would affect Minnesotans. After they are done looking at those figures, they will decide whether they can compromise on a tax policy, which the governor says is the linchpin of ending the 2008 legislative session.

The state constitution requires the session to end Monday, but to be a success, the governor and legislative leaders must agree on how property taxes and a state budget deficit will be handled.

"Each time we have gotten together, we have got a little closer," House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said.

All sides were optimistic Wednesday night, a better sign than Tuesday night when negotiations folded over a dispute about whether $50 million should be removed from a health fund.

Most of the attention was focused on how to lower property taxes, but negotiators also considered how to fill a $935 million hole in the state budget.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the governor will not agree to budget-balancing measures without a property tax agreement.

The governor wants a strict limit on how much local governments can raise property taxes. Democrats propose a looser property tax cap than Pawlenty wants.

Here are answers to some questions about efforts to end the 2008 legislative session:

Q: What are the negotiations about?

A: As the mandated session deadline nears in most years, the governor and legislative leaders go behind closed doors to work out details of major unresolved bills, especially those spending money. This year, the main issue is how to fill a $935 million budget deficit, but the top policymakers also are discussing ways to lower property taxes.

Q: A $935 million deficit? That sounds huge.

A: To most Minnesotans, that is a lot of money. However, it is pretty tiny compared to the $34 billion, two-year budget legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty approved last year.

Q: How did Minnesota get itself into this situation?

A: Minnesota is not responsible as much as the national economy. Tax revenues have fallen as people lose jobs, buy less, and in general, pay less tax money to the state. Also, some programs are costing more, such as those that help people in poverty and those without insurance.

Q: What things are the governor and legislators thinking about doing to balance the budget?

A: They agree they need to cut programs, use surplus money in various state funds and close a loophole that allows some multi-national corporations to avoid paying income taxes.

Don Davis
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.