In ugly finish, lawmakers hustle budget throughby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minnesota Legislature concluded its 2007 session with a chaotic last minute push to meet a midnight deadline for adjournment.
St. Paul, Minn. — Lawmakers passed several key budget bills Monday night. But it took some heavy-handed maneuvering in the House to finish the job. Lawmakers never reached an overall budget agreement with Gov. Pawlenty, who could decide to sign or veto the bills later this week. In the final hours of the 2007 session, and even before the final votes were cast, key legislative leaders were already considering their accomplishments over the past five months.
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher described what she sees as a new tenor and tone in the Legislature, with her party in charge.
"We feel very good about the changes we've made, the inclusion. And just because there are party-line votes, I don't think people should mistake that for an overly partisan atmosphere," she said.
But just two hours later, the tone of the House had grown increasingly harsh. Democrats were cutting off debate and forcing votes to meet the midnight deadline.
DFL legislative leaders were unable to resolve all of their budget disagreements with Gov. Pawlenty. So, they decided instead on an unconventional, piecemeal approach to passing the budget. On the last day of the session they finalized individual spending bills and put them to votes with little time for scrutiny or debate.
Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, told his colleagues he disliked voting on a finance bill for public schools that few lawmakers had even read.
"And I'm very disappointed that in this new era of openness and transparency and bipartisanship and cooperation that we are dealing with 40 percent of the state budget and putting it together ad hoc, behind closed doors, small committee, without testimony, at the last minute," he said. "And then bring it forward and saying we don't know if we have an agreement with the governor, we don't know if we have an agreement with the House. But here it is, we hope it will pass."
Despite the concerns raised by Hann and other Republicans, lawmakers in both chambers passed the $13.5 billion bill. The measure boosts the basic amount schools get for each student by 2 percent next year, and 1 percent the following year. The House and Senate also passed a slimmed-down health and human Services bill. Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, was disappointed with the amount of spending, but she's pleased with its expansion of health insurance coverage.
"We will insure 56,800 and some more uninsured people over the next four years," she said. "And we should be proud of that. It is a step in the right direction in terms of being able to begin some health care reform."
But Berglin and other lawmakers were disappointed with the bill's modest pay increases for nursing home employees. House Republican Minority Leader Marty Seifert of Marshall says the K-12 education and health and human services bills fell far short. Seifert says the state government bill was far too generous in financing the operation of the Legislature.
"Probably the worst part of all this is they found between 1 and 2 percent for schools and for nursing homes, but they managed to find 19 percent for the Legislature. I think that's outrageous," he said.
It's unclear how many of the budget bills passed in the final hours will survive once they arrive on the governor's desk. Gov. Pawlenty offered a generally positive assessment of the session. But he's also reserving judgment on the DFL-backed funding bills.
"Keep in mind it's $34 billion worth of bills; many of them are hundreds and hundreds of pages long. And we haven't even seen them, nor have the legislators unfortunately," he said. "So I can't stand here and assure you that I'm going to sign all these bills or I'm not going to line item these bills. I made it very clear to the legislators that we would go through them carefully, and we will reserve fully our rights to line item or veto bills."
One lawmaker who'll be keeping an eye out for a veto message this week is the chairman of the Senate Taxes Committee. Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he's heard the governor might not like the omnibus bill.
"I'm hearing that the governor is providing some push back, that he may veto the bill because there's a requirement in there that inflation be counted in future budget forecasts. I find that troubling," he said.
The clock ran out on one of the key issues of the session. The House failed to take up a ballot question on dedicating a fractional sales tax increase to natural and cultural resources. Supporters say they'll try again next session.