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Budget plan comes due

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - No more reprieves. No more delays. Reckoning day is here.

Rested from a six-day Florida getaway, Gov. Tim Pawlenty returns to deliver a two-year budget plan that contains his remedy for a $4.2 billion projected deficit. Tuesday's announcement - one he put off a week - raises the curtain on a budget debate that all agree will be the most emotionally charged in years.

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Image Not prejudging, Hottinger says

"We expect a protest a day," said Pawlenty's chief of staff Charlie Weaver.

The anxiety level already is high.

"Very worried" is how Carla Ferrucci summed up her mood as she and other advocates for sexual and domestic violence victims gathered in the Rotunda late last week.

That's because the freshman Republican governor intends to conquer Minnesota's budget demon without raising taxes.

His 2004-'05 proposal will call for more state spending than the current $27 billion budget. The problem is that built-in commitments have climbed faster than anticipated tax revenue, creating the gap that must be closed.

There is nobody, there is absolutely no person in this state who will not see a program they like unaffected.
- House Speaker Steve Sviggum

Reining in the spending growth will force real cuts to programs and mean lower-than-expected dollar amounts for others.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum has had a sneak peek at the budget highlights.

"There is no doubt it will open eyes among many many citizens," said Sviggum, R-Kenyon. "There is nobody, there is absolutely no person in this state who will not see a program they like unaffected."

But for now, Sviggum said House Republicans are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Pawlenty on the tax issue.

Even DFL Senate leaders aren't ready to swim against the no-tax tide.

"We're not prejudging," said Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger of St. Peter. "We're going to listen to the options."

Over the next month, Senate DFL members will hold 42 town meetings across the state to gauge public sentiment on the Pawlenty plan. "We are having a monumental discussion about the future of Minnesota and the public is a player in that, it's not just the politicians," Hottinger said.

The budget debate is sure to stretch well into May - possibly beyond. In the meantime, policy bills will get more attention:

-On Monday, committees in the House and Senate will consider bills to end health insurance for same-sex partners of state employees on June 30. The benefit was included in public employee contracts, but the Legislature wouldn't ratify the pacts because many lawmakers object on moral grounds.

-Also Monday, the House will vote on a bill delivering a death blow to the Profile of Learning graduation standards. A set of replacement standards is in the works. The Senate is expected to hold off on a repeal until a panel commissioned by education commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke makes its recommendations in late March or early April.

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