Lawmakers chip away at budget, one piece at a timeby Brian Bakst, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. — Small pieces of a massive Minnesota state budget fell into place Monday at the outset of what promises to be a busy week at the Capitol.
A bill that keeps the Transportation Department and State Patrol running easily cleared the House and headed for the Senate floor.
Votes were expected later Monday on legislation paying for energy and natural resources programs.
Republicans said Democrats who control the Legislature were jumping ahead by moving budget bills without an overall agreement with GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"Until we agree how big the pie is, we shouldn't be determining how big individual pieces of the pie are," said Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria.
But DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich said the lack of such a deal shouldn't stop action on agreed-upon pieces of the budget.
"Why not take that right now? Why not find some agreement?" said Sertich, of Chisholm.
Democrats in charge of the Legislature want other House-Senate panels to finish remaining budget bills by Thursday so they can be sent to Pawlenty soon after.
There are two weeks left in the regular session; a special session is possible if the budget isn't approved by May 18.
With major differences over tax rates, education spending and health plans, it's possible that all or parts of the legislatively approved budget could face vetoes. If that happens, the bills would be sent back for revisions or legislative leaders could try to muster two-thirds votes in both chambers for veto overrides.
All the work is being done in the backdrop of a $4.6 billion deficit.
While tiny compared with megabills for education and social services, the completed bills make a dent in the deficit.
For example, the energy and natural resources bill cuts $60 million from current spending levels, said Democratic Rep. Rick Hansen, one of the lawmakers who helped assemble it.
The bill also raises permitting fees for companies. Mining operations would pay between $5,000 and $75,000 for permits. The maximum water-use fees for large consumers would rise from $250,000 to $300,000.
Notably absent are any increased fees for fishing licenses, a place lawmakers often look when doing budget repairs. Hansen, of South St. Paul, said legislators deliberately avoided raising angling fees this year.
"We're trying to make sure we're not hitting the rank-and-file Joe and Jane Minnesotan with these fees," he said.
The transportation bill is far less flashy this year than the one that passed in 2008 over Pawlenty's veto.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said the bill keeps the State Patrol whole, maintains a steady flow of road construction projects and avoids deep service cuts or fare increases for transit riders.
Lawmakers were helped by a large infusion of federal money from the stimulus bill dedicated to transportation.
Like the environment budget, the transportation bill is noteworthy for something it lacks. Negotiators decided against a measure that would toughen enforcement of seat-belt use laws.
The Senate had approved a provision allowing police to stop drivers solely for failing to wear a seat belt. Currently, they must spot another moving violation first.
The House has balked at the plan, and Hornstein said the conference committee decided to make the measure ride on its own.
Hornstein said he expects a House vote this month on a standalone seat-belt bill. Minnesota has $3.6 million in federal money riding on its passage, he said.
"The vote is close, as it always is," he said.
A third bill - for economic development and housing initiatives - was sealed up Monday, but was unlikely to clear both chambers before Tuesday.
One controversial item in the bill would forgive more than $32 million of a $48 million loan St. Paul used to construct the RiverCentre adjacent to the Xcel Energy Center arena. The bill also adopts ice hockey as the official state sport.
Another bill covering for agriculture and veterans programs was also on the verge of completion.
It's unclear whether Pawlenty will accept the bills as they come to him or wait until there is a broader agreement on the overall budget. In the past, he's been cool to approving the budget in piecemeal fashion.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she thinks Pawlenty will take a different posture this year.
"He seems to be very open to bringing in different pieces of the budget, section by section," she said.
Brian McClung, a spokesman for Pawlenty, said the administration is working closely with lawmakers on the budget bills.
"The governor is still reserving his right to veto or line-item veto these bills," McClung said. "But we're hopeful we can get details worked out and the governor can sign them."
(Associated Press Writer Martiga Lohn contributed to this report)