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Negotiations Stuck In Neutral
By Michael Khoo , Minnesota Public Radio
June 6, 2001

Budget talks have broken down at the state Capitol, but the rhetoric is only heating up. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats canceled a scheduled meeting with House Republicans and Gov. Jesse Ventura, saying there was nothing new to discuss. Negotiators remain divided on the appropriate levels of business property tax relief and education spending. The new impasse has once again raised the possibility of a government shutdown.
House Speaker Steve Sviggum (right) used roadblock props outside the Senate chamber to claim Senate Democrats were blocking progress on tax and spending issues.

Sviggum, and Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe debated on the June 6, 2001 edition of MPR's Midday broadcast. Listen online.
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

Gov. Jesse Ventura had tentatively scheduled Wednesday for a one-day special session to approve the state's next two-year budget. Not only is no budget in sight, but lawmakers now appear as divided as they were when they ended their regular session late last month. And with only three weeks remaining in the current fiscal year, House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says the possibility of a government shutdown has re-emerged.

"If and when nursing homes close their doors in July; if and when state government shuts down in less than a month; if and when taxpayers of the state of Minnesota don't get their rebate checks; if and when property taxpayers of the state of Minnesota do not get significant, permanent reductions, there is one group to blame. And that is the Senate DFL," Sviggum said.

Senate DFLers called off a planned meeting with House Republicans and Ventura on Tuesday, saying there were no new proposals to discuss. House Republicans, standing outside the Senate chamber, called that attitude a serious roadblock to resolving outstanding tax and spending issues. But Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, says the GOP plan would cut business taxes at the expense of homeowners in lower-valued residences and would shortchange education.

"Is the Senate standing up for average-valued homes to protect them from property taxes being shifted onto them from commercial and industrial property? Yes we are. Is the Senate standing up trying to make sure that we adequately fund our schools? Yes we are," Moe said. "So if that's the blame, than we accept that blame."

Ventura declined to talk to reporters about the budget negotiations, but spokesman John Wodele indicated for the first time that the governor is leaning closer to the House position. Wodele says because of the impasse, Ventura is now preparing contingency plans in case state funding runs dry this summer. "He is very concerned that he is having to spend his time, his staff is having to spend time, his commissioners are having to spend time dealing with the real possibility of a government shutdown," he said.

The major sticking point remains the level of property tax cuts given to Minnesota businesses. House Republicans say they're holding out for double-digit cuts for all types of properties, while Senate DFLers want to limit business tax relief in order to channel more revenue to education. Sviggum says Democrats are trying to sabotage a budget framework reached by all three sides a week and half ago. "The Senate is holding out for special interests as opposed to the good of the state of Minnesota. They're not holding to an honor of an agreement, the intent of the agreement," he said. "And I find that, again, to be extremely, extremely unfortunate."

Senate leaders, however, say they've remained within the parameters of the budget pact. Moe says if they can't reach agreement by the end of the month, the Senate is willing to adopt a so-called "lights-on" budget that would simply maintain current levels of funding with some increases for inflation.

"The Senate does not want government shut down. We will do everything we can to avoid that. As I've indicated, as a backup we would be more than willing to pass a lights-on. You know, put some sort of an inflation factor in for schools and the colleges and something for the state agencies to operate. And let the rest of it all fall to the bottom line so we can carry on this discussion," Moe said.

While Moe says he'd rather see the state adopt the lights-on approach than accept the House or the administration tax plans, Republicans and the administration say they're not interested in a bare-bones deal if it excludes a tax bill.