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Budget unfinished

Reps. Sheldon Johnson of St. Paul, left, and John Persell of Bemidji talk on Monday, the final day of the Minnesota legislative session. (Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau)1 / 2
House Republican Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall checks his mobile telephone Monday to see if he has to vote in the House. Watching is Senate GOP Leader Dave Senjem of Rochester. (Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau)2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators met almost 19 weeks with one overriding job: Balance the state budget.

They left the Capitol for the year Monday night, leaving Gov. Tim Pawlenty to finish the job, although in the 2009 legislative session's final three hours Democrats drew up a new $1 billion tax increase similar to one the governor already vetoed.

A last-minute flurry of activity failed to nail down an overall state budget agreement, a failure Pawlenty said means he will cut spending on his own. In the coming weeks, he expects to chop $2.7 billion of spending to bring it in line with expected state revenues.

Those pending cuts left many questions for local government officials, school leaders and people who depend upon state-funded health programs, all whom could see state funds shrink.

Democrats wrote their last-minute tax bill to ease spending cuts Pawlenty would make. They wanted to pass a tax bill that delay state payments to schools, saving about $1.7 billion in the next two-year budget, and raise taxes around $1 billion. The alcohol tax and income taxes on wealthy Minnesotans would be increased.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, a tax committee negotiator, said lawmakers know Pawlenty opposes tax increases, but said the Legislature's job is to balance the budget.

"We think that it's important to mitigate the unallotment process as much as we can, and we're giving one more shot at it," Skoe said.

The 201 legislators debated a series of bills on their final day -- medical marijuana, seat belts and other issues that had been pushed aside earlier as the budget took priority.

Among bills heard in the final three hours of the session was one spending $397 million in the next two years on outdoors and arts projects with money from a sales tax increase voters approved last Nov. 4. A final vote was not expected until about midnight.

"This is the promise to the future," Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said about habitat, parks, trails, arts, history and other areas funded in the bill.

Water clean-up work would get the most money from Murphy's bill, $151 million. Also funded are arts, $93 million; outdoor heritage fund, $88 million; and parks and trials, $65 million.

It was a historic session because lawmakers faced a record-high $6.4 billion deficit in the two-year budget that starts July 1. One-time federal aid shrunk the shortfall to $4.6 billion.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled Legislature and Republican Pawlenty agreed some spending cuts were needed, but could not agree on how to plug the entire deficit. Democrats wanted to raise taxes; Pawlenty refused.

Legislative leaders put the best possible spin on the session's outcome Monday, even as efforts to reach a budget agreement were failing.

"Pretty remarkable" is how House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, described the session.

The good news, Kelliher said, is that "there will be no government shutdown, there will be no special session."

Both were promises Pawlenty made Thursday when he announced his planned historic use of an "unallotment" law to reduce state spending without legislative approval.

This is the first time a Minnesota governor is using unallotment to essentially write a budget. Governors occasionally have used unallotment to trim budgets when revenues fell below expectations near the end of a budget cycle.

Pawlenty has said that he likely will delay payments to schools to make up much of the remaining deficit. And it appears he will reduce state payments to local governments, perhaps by several hundred million dollars. Another expected target is health-care services.

The governor's spokesman, Brian McClung, said no timeline has been established for when Pawlenty will make decisions on specifically what to cut.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, blamed Democrats' repeated attempts to raise taxes for failure to negotiate a deal.

He complained that the DFL-led Legislature sent bills spending $34 billion in the next two years to the governor, while agreeing with Pawlenty on just $31 billion in revenue.

"Democrats sent $3 billion of red ink out to the people of Minnesota," Seifert said.

Also in the Legislature's final day:

l The House passed 70-64 a bill allowing terminally ill patients to use marijuana to ease pain, with the Senate agreeing 38-28. "This bill is about compassion for people who are sick and dying," said bill Sponsor Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

Minnesotans could not grow their own marijuana under the bill. Pawlenty says he will veto the bill.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he opposes medical marijuana, even though he someday may need it because he has multiple sclerosis. "I'm a parent first and an MS patient second."

l The House approved 95-39 and the Senate 46-8 a bill requiring schools to establish an anti-bullying policy. Earlier references to reasons for harassment, especially the controversial reference to gay students, were removed.

l The House passed 73-60, with the Senate following 47-19, a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to pull motorists over when someone in the vehicle is not wearing a seat belt. Under current law, drivers and passengers may be ticketed for not wearing belts, but a vehicle cannot be stopped for that reason.

Rukavina succeeded in his effort to amend the bill to allow motorists passing vehicles on two-lane roads to drive faster than the speed limit.

l Trucks about half the size of normal ones would be allowed on county roads under a bill the House approved 122-8.

l Both chambers passed a bill designed to eliminate problems discovered in absentee voting in last year's U.S. Senate election.

Bills not passed by both the House and Senate this year remain alive and still may receive debates next year.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co, which owns the Daily Globe. State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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.