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Special Session Begins With No End In Sight
By Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
June 11, 2001
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Minnesota lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday for the 40th special session in state history. The Legislature adjourned its regular session three weeks ago without passing a new two-year budget. The House and Senate remain divided on tax and spending issues, and both sides seem to be running out of ideas to end the stalemate.

Some legislative leaders have raised the idea of bringing in a mediator to try to break the logjam, and on the Senate floor, the chaplain for the day suggested it might take divine intervention. "Help us to find compromise, and common ground, and balance," said Orono minister Roger Ezell during the opening prayer.

With the main order of business unresolved, the short floor sessions meandered through secondary issues. A handful of non-budget bills were introduced, including a Vikings stadium study and a constitutional amendment for a one-house Legislature. Several lawmakers used the occasion of Timothy McVeigh's execution to speak for and against the death penalty.

Many lawmakers were clearly frustrated at being called back to the Capitol without a budget agreement. Sen. Ed Oliver, R-Deephaven, said in a floor speech that little was accomplished in the three weeks since the regular session ended. He says the public thinks the Legislature is inept, unwilling or unable to finish its work. "Sorry, it has to be laid to the majority leaders who simply have failed to make a deal," he said. "Senator Moe, who has the reputation of a master negotiator, and Speaker Sviggum, who is also pretty darn good. But we've got no results."

"I don't particularly pay much attention to Senator Oliver, with all due respect," responded Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine. He says legislative leaders will continue to negotiate, but deep philosophical differences remain.

"I mean, that's why they built this building, was to have these kinds of debates, and when they are deep seated, and when they're strong opinions, and when we have the, kind of, triangulated government that we do, it's just more complicated," Moe said.

Moe's caucus is holding out for more education spending, while House Republicans are pushing for property tax reform that includes a ten-percent cut for businesses. Senate Democrats have proposed a 4 percent business property tax cut. House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, says his caucus won't cave in on its beliefs, and the stalemate demands leadership from Gov. Ventura.

"It seems like he's kind of washed his hands from the situation right now, and I think he's out golfing today," Sviggum said. "That's not necessarily the leadership that we need."

Ventura was at a charity golf event in Eden Prairie while lawmakers were meeting. His spokesman says the governor committed to the event months ago when he thought the Legislature would be done for the year.

Unless lawmakers agree on a new two-year budget, state government funding runs out at the end of the month. House Minority Leader Tom Pugh, DFL-South St. Paul, who sat in on budget talks last week, says he doesn't see much movement toward an agreement. "That line of division was pretty strong, and I didn't sense that it could be bridged very easily. With that in mind, I think we should very quickly determine whether they can bridge that gap, and if not, do something to avoid a shutdown, that's our purpose here today," he said.

Pugh says if no progress is made, he would support a so-called "lights-on" strategy that would continue government funding and provide inflationary increases for state agencies. It would not include a tax bill, and Pugh says the Legislature could save the tax debate for next year. House Republicans oppose the idea, arguing the current budget surplus allows the state to enact major property tax reform.

Without even a "lights-on" deal in sight, the Ventura administration is preparing for a government shutdown on July 1. Employee Relations Commissioner Julien Carter says a shutdown would mean the closure of state parks, a lack of health department inspectors and reduced prison security. "This is a very serious matter. This causes great stress to our employees, this causes great stress to the people that receive our services," he said.

Carter says a "shutdown team" will meet with state agencies this week to identify critical services. The House and Senate aren't scheduled to meet again until Thursday, and many observers aren't optimistic there will be much progress by then.