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Slow going in Legislature's special session
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger emerged from meetings in Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office Tuesday morning saying they were confident they could unravel the ball of knots that has so far prevented more progress. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
State lawmakers have made only incremental progress towards completing a $4.2 billion deficit-reduction package. Legislators returned to the Capitol on Tuesday to begin a special session meant to resolve business left undone when the regular session ran out the clock Monday night. A state government finance bill is now on its way to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's desk, but at least six other funding measures await final legislative action.

St. Paul, Minn. — Lawmakers slipped behind a self-imposed schedule by passing only one major spending bill. The House took action first on a nearly $600 million spending measure for state government agencies and the Legislature. Members voted 71-to-58 in favor of the bill. In order to reach agreement with the DFL-controlled Senate, House Republicans reluctantly agreed to strip the measure of a proposed freeze on state employees' wages and benefits.

House author Bill Haas says removing the freeze will allow unions to negotiate for higher wages. But the Champlin Republican warns the state's budget crunch means higher pay would require fewer employees.

"It's up to the union to decide at this point, when they go to negotiate their contract settlement, how many people that -- or, actually, how many of their fellow members -- are going to lose their jobs so they can get a pay increase," he said.

The plan provides for an overall cut in state agencies' budgets of 9 percent. That led some DFL critics -- including Tom Rukavina of Virginia -- to warn the bill would force layoffs with or without the wage freeze.

"What it is is, I think, a gleeful decision on the part of your caucus that you get to cut government," Rukavina said. "You've said for years you wanted to cut government, now you've got the chance."

The bill was later approved by the Senate, sending it on to Gov. Pawlenty's desk. The Senate passed the measure on a 35-to-29 with all Republicans and the body's only independent supporting the measure.

The DFL provided three votes in order to ensure passage.

On a similarly split 35-to-30, the Senate also approved a judiciary funding measure. Critics warn the measure reduces funding for victims' services and cuts funding for the state court system by three percent.

The measure was delayed in the House when Democrats refused to support a parliamentary move to bring it up for final consideration.

DFL Minority Leader Matt Entenza declined to say what, specifically, Democrats objected to. "There's a lot of aspects of the bill that obviously we're uncomfortable with but the important thing is we're going to get the work done and there's plenty of time to do it."

The bill also raises a host of court-related fees to help balance the state's projected deficit. Speaker Steve Sviggum was frustrated by the DFL move, saying it could force an even longer special session.

"Cause a little more delay, cause a little bit more time. Cause a little bit more delay in the process, not be able to finish. We got agreements with the Senate. If the House Democrats don't want to take it up and want to extend the session, that's fine," Sviggum said.

The judiciary bill is expected to return Wednesday when House members will have a chance to approve it and send it on to the governor.

Lawmakers say they also hope to consider K-12 and transportation funding packages. And Pawlenty says if agreements aren't reached soon, the negotiations will be taken away from informal working groups. The governor says if necessary, legislative leaders and administration officials will draft final compromises.

"In a number of these areas we're going to continue to allow and encourage the what would have been the conference committees and their chairs to be involved in the decision making and the negotiation and the swapping of offers. If we don't make significant progress, what you'll see is Chief of Staff Weaver, Commissioner McElroy, and the legislative leaders taking over the decision-making, accelerating the process," Pawlenty said.

Legislators must also approve a health and human services budget and a tax bill that finances aids to local governments. And supporters of keeping the state's two nuclear power plants running hope to expand waste storage limits at Xcel Energy's Prairie Island plant. House and Senate leaders have labeled the end of the week an informal deadline for completing their work.

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