No deal on a state budget yetby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders say they're still trying to find a compromise for erasing the state's $4.6 billion budget deficit, but the clock is quickly running out.
St. Paul, Minn. — A closed-door meeting today produced no breakthrough agreement, only a pledge to spend the remaining hours of the session looking for more possible budget cuts.
If they can't make a deal, the governor has said he'll balance the books on his own after legislators go home.
DFL House and Senate leaders were trying to accentuate the positive when they emerged from the hour-long meeting with Gov. Pawlenty.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said all sides recognized a lot of progress was made this session, but deep differences remain.
Pogemiller says the Republican governor didn't budge in his opposition to tax increases, but they agreed to look at the tax bills for some possible savings.
"That would be some aids and credits and some things like that, to narrow the gap that we have. So, we'll be visiting with our tax chairs, and our tax chairs may be visiting with the governor on that, and see if there are some possible tradeoffs that would interest the governor," said Pogemiller. "We're also working in the health and human services area to see if there's not some way to accommodate some of issues there."
It's unclear if those discussions will bear any last-minute fruit, especially because the two sides are still about $2.7 billion apart. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says the governor remains prepared to act on his own, using his emergency budget-cutting authority.
"We hope they can come back to us with some ideas that will work," said McClung. "But if not, as the governor said, he's willing to make sure that we have a balanced budget, that we have no special session and that we have no government shutdown."
Earlier in the day, on MPR's Midday program, DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she thought the governor made the decision to go it alone with unilateral cuts several weeks ago. Kelliher said Pawlenty has not negotiated in good faith.
"This is kind of the end of the line here for Gov. Pawlenty, in terms of wanting to continue to bleed Minnesotans to death with a tourniquet on from year to year. We're still bleeding to death," said Kelliher. "Until we fix the fiscal underpinnings of this budget, it's going to be very difficult to come to an agreement."
House Republicans also sounded pessimistic. GOP Minority Leader Marty Seifert emerged from the governor's office worried about time. Seifert said the Democrats were essentially responding to an offer than was nearly two days old.
"It's getting late, and we're hoping that there can be some progress in one way, shape or form," said Seifert. "Obviously the meeting was cordial, but we have a lot of work to do between now and midnight if there's going to be a closing of the gap, whether it's fully closed or partially closed."
While the budget talks bogged down, several policy bills steamed ahead.
Legislation for medical use of marijuana cleared the Minnesota House 70-64, after it was tightened to apply only to terminally ill patients with severe symptoms. That's stricter than the version that cleared the Senate, which accepted the change and repassed the bill 38-28.
Debate on the House floor created unusual political alliances, with conservative Republican Rep. Mark Buesgens arguing for the change and DFL Rep. Joe Atkins pushing for more restrictions.
"I don't understand what there is to be afraid of," said Buesgens, R-Jordan.
Atkins, of Inver Grove Heights, amended the bill to exclude those with chronic but not terminal conditions. He said the change would make it more likely to win Pawlenty's support.
Pawlenty has opposed the legislation, saying he agrees with law enforcement concerns about expanded drug use. His spokesman, Brian McClung, confirmed late Monday evening that Pawlenty will veto the measure.
After years of stalling in the House, legislation giving police more power to ticket unbuckled motorists is cruising toward passage.
The House passed the so-called primary seat belt law on Monday 73-60. The measure has long fared better in the Senate, and Pawlenty has voiced his support. The Senate later approved the bill 47-19, sending it to the governor.
The bill gives police the ability to pull over and ticket motorists solely because they or their passengers aren't buckled up.
Currently, law enforcement must spot another traffic offense to make the stop. A second provision would let drivers go 10 miles an hour over the speed limit when passing.
"Our law enforcement officers are tired of going to an accident and having to clean up the mess that's left there, the heartbreaking results of people that are ejected from their cars and killed needlessly," said the bill's sponsor, DFL Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester.
The seat belt violation carries a $25 fine.
Minnesota has $3.4 million in federal transportation money riding on the change.
Opposition centered on whether it would fuel racial profiling. Others say seat belt use should remain a personal choice. "This is about how far we go in legislating how people live," said Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield.
An elections bill would move the state's primary elections from September to early August, which proponents say should give more time for voters to compare their general election choices and return absentee ballots if they live overseas.
An attempt to allow no-excuse early voting was removed from the bill, but there were other absentee ballot law changes crafted in response to the state's lengthy 2008 Senate race.
Local election officials would have to make extra efforts to contact voters whose ballots are rejected and give them the option of casting a new one.
The Senate passed it 44-20; the House vote was 85-49.
Pawlenty hasn't said what he'll do with the bill; his fellow Republicans wanted a requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls.
But Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said the changes are too important to put off.
"If we wait to do it next year, most of the changes won't go into effect in the 2010 election," he said.
The House started debate on a bill dividing up sales tax money for habitat, water and cultural projects.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
- All Things Considered, 05/18/2009, 5:19 p.m.