Budget clock is ticking at Capitolby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
State lawmakers have less than two weeks left in the legislative session, and just over 24 hours left to meet a key self-imposed deadline. All of the budget and tax bills must be out of conference committees by midnight Thursday. But House and Senate negotiators still don't know how much they can spend in those bills. And Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democrats still disagree over spending and taxes.
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty was scheduled to meet throughout the day with the leaders of several budget conference committees.
The Republican governor told reporters he was hoping to make progress on the remaining bills. And he repeated the guiding principles he wants them to use as they erase a $4.6 billion budget deficit.
"We need to get bills that require the state to live within its means, and do what we've said all along -- maintain the priorities in Minnesota of taking care of things like public safety and veterans, and keeping a lid on taxes," said Pawlenty. "And making sure that we don't continue the runaway spending in some other areas, like social services and welfare, that are going up at disproportionate rates."
The House and Senate sent the governor three budget bills this week, covering economic development, environment and energy, and transportation.
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher says three more spending bills -- agriculture and veterans, public safety and state government operations -- are almost completed.
Kelliher says the debate will then focus on the remaining key issues.
"And that is the issues of basic health care services for Minnesotans ... how we're going to treat early childhood through 12th grade education, higher education. And the issue of ongoing revenue into our severely damaged state budget," said Kelliher.
Kelliher says her goal is to avoid the governor's veto pen. But the divides over the three biggest bills, which represent 70 percent of state spending, are wide and deep.
The governor opposes any tax increase. He wants less spending in health and human services and more spending for K-12 education.
House and Senate negotiators also have differences to resolve. The House wants to keep funding flat for public schools. But DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller is still talking about a 3 percent spending cut.
"It's 40 percent of the budget. I don't see how you get a truly balanced budget without some belt-tightening in the K-12 system," said Pogemiller.
DFL leaders insist that budget discussions should be conducted in public. They've met regularly with Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson, who serves as the governor's chief negotiator.
As House Majority Leader Tony Sertich demonstrated this week, even public talks can be slow and frustrating.
"Let's cut the bull. Let's start compromising and get this deal done," said Sertich. "Why do we have to wait for the last weekend? Why do we have to do a silly dance of, 'I'm going to tell you what I think over and over again? I'll just restate my position over and over again.' I'm sick of it."
Sertich was particularly critical of the governor for sticking to his proposal to help balance the books by raising about $1 billion in revenue from a bond sale.
Commissioner Hanson told Sertich that the bonds are still preferable to tax increases or deeper spending cuts.
"Just because you have some clock ... or bell that went off in your head ... we're supposed to now all of a sudden give up on something we believe in and that we're trying to accomplish?" said Hanson. "I recognize it's not the optimum budget solution, but it's something. It's a budget-balancing tool in difficult times."
Republican legislators predict a difficult end of the session. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who's participating in the tax bill negotiations, says he doesn't see a sense of urgency from Democrats.
"It just seems to be a lot of horsing around and concert-going and fiddle-faddling," said Seifert. "We essentially should be telling the conference committees, if you're not not by Thursday, the leadership is going to come in and take it over. That's the way Roger Moe used to get things done, and frankly, there's going to have to be some more firm leadership."
Seifert says there's no way all budget and tax bills will be ready by midnight Thursday.
Speaker Kelliher says it's going to be tough to meet the deadline. But she insists there's still enough time to get the budget work completed by May 18.
- All Things Considered, 05/07/2009, 5:51 p.m.