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Special session snagged on bonding bill
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House Speaker Steve Sviggum adjourned the House without taking action on the bonding bill. Senate DFLers say there's nothing suspicious about the lag in closing a health and human services deal. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Legislative inaction has forced state lawmakers into at least one more day of budget wrangling as they struggle to erase a projected $4.2 billion deficit. But House and Senate leaders say they hope to break the impasse later today with final votes on both a health and human services package and a bonding bill that borrows money for state building projects.

St. Paul, Minn. — The $217 million bonding bill is a key priority for Senate Democrats who argue the borrowed cash will jumpstart projects across the state and help revive a sluggish economy.

Senate leaders say they won't move on items important to Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP House leaders until the bonding measure is safely in hand.

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But Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says two can play at that game. He says that, after talking with Pawlenty Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno, he's decided to sit on the bonding bill in order to force agreement on the final piece of the budget puzzle: a health and human services funding package.

"Commissioner Goodno and many of my members would just like to have that bill locked up. Just that there might be a concern that for some reason there be a retrenchment on positions, that it not be finished. I mean, that's a very, very important bill, and people don't want to be here until November," Sviggum said.

The main contours of the health and human services bill have already been defined. Among other things, it reduces eligibility for state healthcare programs and increases co-payments for enrollees.

But because negotiators were still working Wednesday night to tie up a few loose ends, Sviggum adjourned the House without taking action on the bonding bill. Senate DFLers say there's nothing suspicious about the lag in closing a health and human services deal.

"The intent on the part of the Senate is to put together as best we can a human services bill that doesn't create the kind of damage that the original Pawlenty budget did," said Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. "But this certainly is not an attempt to keep on leveraging the House. The intent is to get a workable bill put together."

However, Senate Democrats have clearly tied the bonding bill to other budget items, including a tax bill that cuts state support to cities and counties and a transportation funding package. Those measures have already passed the House but the Senate has refused to consider them until the fate of bonding is decided. Cohen says it's likely that the real reason the House adjourned without taking action is because Republicans lack the votes to pass the bonding bill.

The bonding deal requires a three-fifths supermajority to pass, and will almost certainly require votes from members of the House DFL minority. But Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul says it's unrealistic to think his caucus will provide the necessary votes for a measure they didn't have a hand in drafting.

"The bonding bill has to get up and going. And given that Republicans only want to provide 50 percent of the votes and they seem to rely on my members, they have a problem. And so they're going to have to work with us to get a better bill for Minnesota. It's just not going to be as extremely conservative as their other bills," Entenza said.

Entenza says he wants the bill to include projects that could have an immediate impact on the state's economy. Among them, he lists a Minneapolis planetarium and the Northstar commuter rail line linking St. Cloud and Minneapolis.

Speaker Sviggum says he has no appetite for renegotiating the bonding bill. Sviggum says he's only obligated to give the bill -- as agreed to with the Senate -- a fair floor vote and provide roughly half the necessary support. The Senate, he says, will have to prevail on House DFLers to follow along if they hope to see a bonding package this year.

"I need to give nothing," Sviggum said. "We already agreed. This is the deal. I've given and given and given and given. I don't need to give anymore. The deal is that there be, that the minority put up half the votes. So I'm assuming that that will come true."

Senate Democrats, however, say the House Republicans are obligated to actually pass the bill, not just make the effort to do so. A vote in the House could come as soon as Thursday. If it fails, it's almost certain to push the budget dance into yet another day -- if not longer.

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