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Surprise: The budget could get worse

St. Paul, Minn. — ST. PAUL (AP) - To all those playing along at home with the state's budget games, get ready for more fun. Things could get far worse - or better - this week. Tune in Thursday to find out which.

In an unfortunate but long-standing case of bad timing, Gov. Tim Pawlenty had to produce his budget for the next two years before he got the best forecast of the state's finances in upcoming years. Past governors have faced the same conundrum.

The state's real budget target - the one the House and Senate will ultimately vote on - will be based on the numbers that are coming out this week.

Will the forecast be worse than the last, which came out in December?

Democratic Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger thinks so. He's predicting the $4.2 billion deficit will grow to $5 billion.

Such a figure would put even more pressure on Pawlenty's pledge to solve the deficit without raising taxes.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum, though, thinks the forecast will make things easier.

"I'm going to guess it might be a couple to three-four-five hundred million dollars better," he said.

Of course, neither man knows. Sviggum's basing his guess on the fact that tax collections over the past few months have increased beyond earlier predictions. An economic update predicted the economy will improve the next two years over the earlier forecast.

Hottinger is basing his guess on the fact that there doesn't appear to be any noticeable recovery.

If there are extra dollars, though, Sviggum said he has ideas on how to spend them.

He said the House would probably consider using any money to reduce Pawlenty's proposed cuts in local government aid, to agriculture programs and nursing homes.

And while he expects the Republican-dominated House would vote for Pawlenty's plan as it is, "we will make a few detours to the road map the governor has given us."

Sviggum said Pawlenty's proposal to freeze wages of all public employees also has been a concern among Republicans in his caucus. The freeze would apply even to those employed by school districts and local governments, which the state does not directly control.

Hottinger agrees. "We kind of think local government officials making local decisions is a good idea," he said.

The loudest voices of dissent last week came from city and county officials around the state who could lose about a quarter of their state funding under Pawlenty's plan.

Senate Democrats were mostly mum. They say they're content for now to let the people do the talking about the budget, an approach Pawlenty describes as a "marketing war."

This week, Democrats will continue to shop Pawlenty's plan around the state in a series of town hall-style meetings. There will be more than two dozen this week.

Elsewhere, a bill of major concern to trial attorneys will get a forum in the House on Monday.

Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, will lead a push on the House floor to change state law to give more protection in civil lawsuits to those who have deep pockets but relatively small amounts of fault.

Called joint and several liability, under the bill no party would have to pay more than their share of jury awards if they are less than 50 percent liable.

The law now allows people or entities more than 15 percent at fault to be held responsible for many times that amount of the damages. The concept applies to certain personal and environmental injury cases.

Johnson called it basic fairness.

"The question is, do you hold somebody who is not fully responsible fully liable, just because they may have more of an ability to pay," he said.

In the Senate, there may be an effort to change Senate rules to make it more difficult for lawmakers to vote to remove bills from committees so they can be voted on on the Senate floor.

Now, it takes a majority of lawmakers to agree to such a move. Such efforts have rarely been successful, but Democrats hold only a tenuous lead in the Senate this session. The rule change would require a 60 percent vote.

Hottinger said the change would guarantee that bills get a full hearing.

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