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Patience running low as time winds down at Capitol
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum says it's "ridiculous" that DFLers have yet to take formal action on their own proposal. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Minnesota House Republicans say they're growing impatient with the slow pace of budget negotiations. With just over a week left before scheduled adjournment, GOP leaders in the House and Democrats who control the Senate remain deeply divided over how to erase a projected $4.2 billion deficit. The fault line lies over the contentious issue of taxes, with Republicans saying they'll stand by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his pledge not to increase state taxes.

St. Paul, Minn. — Senate Democrats squared off against Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans last month when they proposed a $1 billion tax hike. The revenue would come mainly from a new income tax bracket for the state's wealthiest households and a boost to the cigarette tax, and would soften the spending reductions favored by Republicans.

But House Speaker Steve Sviggum says it's "ridiculous" that DFLers have yet to take formal action on their own proposal. Sviggum says if Senate Taxes Committee Chair Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis doesn't move quickly, there won't be enough time left in the session to complete budget negotiations.

"Let me try not to be angered by Sen. Pogemiller. That's a hard thing not to do. He's a very frustrating individual as he runs the clock past midnight all the time. But the actions of the Senate by not having a tax bill, I think is inappropriate," Sviggum said.

Sviggum notes that the House has already passed a complete budget. By contrast, the Senate has passed all of its budget bills except the tax measure.

Pogemiller says he continues to move diligently and prudently on assembling a tax bill. But he says the spending cuts favored by Pawlenty and House Republicans amount to a hidden tax increase. He says local governments will be forced to pick up the slack and, consequently, raise local property taxes. Pogemiller says he'll dust off a plan he offered earlier in the session to freeze property taxes.

"I'm pretty firm in my belief that I'm not going to let him push the state's problem on to local property taxes. So I intend on pursuing the property tax freeze, and to do that we would need to adequately fund education in a different manner," he said.

Building on the link between property taxes and education, Pogemiller has merged the K-12 funding bill with the tax measure he's compiling. That, critics say, only further complicates the end-of-session negotiations.

Sen. Bill Belanger, R-Bloomington, the lead minority member on the tax committee, says it seems like Pogemiller and other metropolitan Democrats hope to stall long enough to force a special legislative session this summer, perhaps increasing their leverage.

"Senator Pogemiller's very smart. And, you know, I work with him and I talk to him. But sometimes I can sense where's he going. But he will never come right out and tell me where he's going. And if I were chair, I probably wouldn't," Belanger says.

DFL leaders say it's still possible to wrap up the budget work before the constitutional adjournment date of May 19.

Majority Leader John Hottinger says with or without a complete Senate tax bill, the most important issue is the level of spending reductions proposed by the Republicans. Hottinger says there's no reason why joint House-Senate conference committees can't begin working out their differences while the debate over taxes continues.

"The issue has been how do we deal with the excessive cuts that are in the House's bill and the governor's proposal? That's the primary issue we're concerned about. The conference committees are there to start dealing with that. And we just hope that they'd call some meetings," according to Hottinger.

Senate DFLers could bring their plan to a floor vote as early as Monday.

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