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Theatrics takes center stage at Capitol
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
April 11, 2002

Budget talks at the state Capitol still show no sign of progress and could detoriate even further. On Wednesday, House and Senate leaders staged dueling press conferences to point blame at each other. And GOP leaders say if resolution isn't in hand by the end of the week, there's likely to be no compromise until next month.

After DFLers accused Republicans of holding House Speaker Steve Sviggum hostage to conservative interests, Sviggum and Pawlenty played before cameras at a Capitol news conference.
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

With no immediate prospects for resolution of the state's projected budget deficit, Democrats and Republicans have turned instead to political theater. Senate DFLers took the stage first, accusing a group of hard-line conservatives of holding the legislative session hostage to their demands.

They appeared at their press conference complete with a mock ransom note, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger of Mankato said if House leaders would give more weight to moderate voices, a deal could soon be in hand.

"We look at a broad range across the Legislature - Democrat and Republican - who want to come up with a moderate and prompt solution to the budget. But a small cadre of right-wing members in the House are in essence holding Speaker Sviggum and Majority Leader Pawlenty hostage," Hottinger said.

Pawlenty suggested it's DFL politics that are influencing the debate. House Speaker Steve Sviggum agrees. He says Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe is afraid to compromise for fear it could tarnish his reputation among DFL delegates.

Moe is seeking the Democratic endorsement for governor along with state Senator Becky Lourey and State Auditor Judi Dutcher.

In reference to the DFL charge of kidnaping, Sviggum appeared at the press conference bound and gagged. He says as the May DFL convention approaches, he expects the Senate to become more rigid in its bargaining. But he declared himself free to negotiate.

Hottinger says gubernatorial politics are also playing a role. He says House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, who is seeking the GOP endorsement for governor, is being inflexible in part because his GOP opponent Brian Sullivan has taken a hard line to woo party activists.

But Pawlenty says the DFL critique is misplaced. He says there's nothing extreme about the House position to reject tax hikes to solve the budget deficit. And he says it's misleading to paint the Senate DFL option as mainstream.

"It is not moderate to be proposing - as they do - the largest tax increases in recent Minnesota history. It is not moderate to continually propose spending increases without accountability. It is not moderate to have increased spending like, you know, untrained Lotto winners during the 1990s when they were in charge," Pawlenty said.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, displays a ransom note/prop during a DFL press conference accusing a "cadre of right-wing Republicans of holding budget discussions hostage."
(MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)

"We have offered to the Senate many different offers, both in the way of specific dollar amounts as well as process to end this session which just seems to be prolonging and prolonging way beyond necessary," Sviggum said.

Although the day's events were confined to theatrics and not serious bargaining, Senate leaders say they did make progress earlier in the week by offering to meet the House halfway on the amount of state borrowing for construction projects. But Sviggum rejected that offer, saying the Senate starting point was well beyond any responsible level, and he offered a counter-plan closer to the House position.

House leaders have also suggested that conference committees discussing the budget, bonding, transportation, and domestic security matters should be allowed to negotiate their differences even without a global agreement on all items.

So far, Senate leaders have suggested they would accept that plan only on bonding and perhaps transportation.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jesse Ventura has taken his case around the state, granting interviews to seven outstate radio stations. Ventura has been critical of the slow pace of negotiations, and Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says the governor's recent outspokeness is a sign of what's to come if a solution isn't found soon.

"If we go home unresolved, you will not hear from 201 of us; you'll be listening to Gov. Ventura. I do not know what he's going to say, but I can only surmise. And it will not be kind to the members of the Legislature," Johnson said.

But lawmakers have also been critical of Ventura lately for sending mixed messages about his budget intentions. Although the governor originally supported some tax increases to balance the budget, he's more recently said he'll VETO any tax increases. Lawmakers say they need a better understanding of the governor's position before they can finish their business.

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