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Two weeks left in the session, $28 billion to spend
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Finance Commissioner Dan McElroy meet with reporters after an appearance on MPR's Midday on Monday. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
With two weeks left in the legislative session, there seems to be little middle ground between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides are pointing to weekend polls to make their case for balancing the budget. Republicans say they won't raise taxes, while DFL leaders say if Republicans won't compromise, a special session is likely.

St. Paul, Minn. — Legislative leaders remain divided on the issue that has dominated most of the session: whether to increase taxes to balance the budget. Two polls released over the weekend have given ammunition to both sides. Republicans point to the MPR-Pioneer Press poll, which found that most respondents believe Minnesota's tax burden is too high. DFL leaders, meanwhile, say both the MPR-Pioneer Press poll and the Star Tribune Minnesota poll show strong support for raising cigarette and upper-income taxes, key elements of DFL budget plans.

"Three-quarters of the public say that our approach is the right approach," contends DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul, who says the polls show Minnesotans support a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to balance the budget.

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Image Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul

He says Democrats may be outnumbered by Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans, but they're not giving up. "Memo to the Republicans: the DFL's not rolling over. The DFL understands that the public wants a balanced approach, and we're not rolling over for the extreme conservative groups that the Republicans want to pander to."

Entenza is referring to the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, the group behind the no-tax-increase pledge signed by Gov. Pawlenty and many Republicans. Pawlenty's finance commissioner, Dan McElroy, says the governor didn't just take an interest group pledge.

"He did promise the people of Minnesota, in a hundred campaign speeches -- probably 500 campaign speeches -- and said in no uncertain terms, 'I will not raise your taxes,'" McElroy said.

McElroy says the Pawlenty administration won't abdicate fiscal responsibility because of a poll. He says Minnesota needs to control government spending, which is outpacing the spending in neighboring states.

The bottom line is: you can read these polls a variety of ways, and the bottom line is that people still feel that we've got to focus on reducing spending.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Gov. Pawlenty says the polls confirm that Minnesotans would rather cut spending than raise taxes to erase the state's $4.2 billion projected deficit.

"The bottom line is: you can read these polls a variety of ways, and the bottom line is that people still feel that we've got to focus on reducing spending," Pawlenty says.

Pawlenty says the polls indicate Minnesotans support higher taxes that don't affect them. The polls also found about 70 percent of respondents would support adding slot machines at Canterbury Park. Pawlenty says he doesn't like the idea of the "racino". But he says he hasn't ruled it out in deference to its proponents, Republican leaders in the House and Senate. He said the polls give him pause on the issue.

DFL Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger of St. Peter says the governor is apparently willing to rethink a longstanding opposition to gambling expansion because of the polls.

"If he's willing to change his point of view on that, he should be willing to change his point of view on the things that are even more popular with Minnesotans, the proposals in the Senate bill," according to Hottinger.

And aside from the polls, many DFL lawmakers say they won't give in to Republicans' no-tax-increase stance based on principle.

"What's the vision?" asks Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood. "Is the vision to cut everything to pieces and cut programs and cut child care and cut health care and leave us in a much worse state, or a cold Mississippi? That's what's at stake here and I can't think of fighting for anything that's more important."

DFL leaders say if Republicans aren't willing to compromise on the tax issue, they're forcing a special session. They believe the polls have strengthened their hand, but Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon sees it differently.

"Boy, that would be terrible if a poll would send a Democrat spending taxing plan to special session," Sviggum says.

Sviggum says the Legislature must finish its work by the May 19 deadline. He says he and Gov. Pawlenty agree on what they call "no pay after May," which would mean legislators wouldn't get their per-diem payments if the session goes beyond the month.

Some lawmakers are starting to compare this session to 2001, when lawmakers passed budget bills just in time to avert a government shutdown on July 1.

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