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Republicans tout accomplishments, DFLers lick wounds
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Gov. Pawlenty greets visitors at Mears Park in St. Paul on Friday. Pawlenty criticized DFLers for failing to pass HF 1, which called for visa information to be printed on drivers licenses. He also lamented the failure to pass any health care reform legislation. (MPR Photo/Brandt Williams)
Minnesota lawmakers wrapped up a 10-day special session Thursday night, ending a grueling five months of debate over the largest budget deficit in Minnesota history. When it was over, the Legislature had erased a projected $4.2 billion deficit without raising state taxes. Republicans took to the road Friday to tout the session's accomplishments, while Democrats say Minnesotans will soon realize the harmful effects of a budget they don't support. At least one DFL senator is so upset about the budget, he says he may leave the caucus.

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota's massive budget crisis led to one of the most contentious sessions in recent memory. In January, lawmakers were immediately faced with a $356 million deficit in the current fiscal year. The House and Senate couldn't agree on a short-term fix, and Gov. Pawlenty used his emergency budget-cutting powers a little more than a month into the session.

Lawmakers spent the rest of the session -- and the special session -- wrangling over the much larger $4.2 billion projected deficit over the next two years. Ultimately, Pawlenty prevailed on his campaign promise to balance the budget without raising state taxes. He says his first session turned out as good as he could have hoped given the circumstances.

"We're governing, trying to lead in extraordinary times, times of enormous crisis, financially, war, mass layoffs, all sorts of trouble, and so it's not like most other sessions and so I hope people put it in context," Pawlenty said.

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Image Rep. Kent Eken

Pawlenty also achieved much of the rest of his agenda. The Legislature repealed the Profile of Learning graduation standards, approved up to 10 tax-free zones in rural Minnesota, and passed a transportation bill similar to Pawlenty's proposal to borrow for road projects.

Republican House leaders spent the day traveling around southern Minnesota to highlight the session. House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon said in Rochester that despite one of the toughest sessions he's ever experienced, the Legislature finished with the best product possible.

"It's a session that we didn't raise tax burdens, focused dollars to those who needed them the most, and we brought forward some significant reforms and change, and didn't just say, 'it's going to be just the status quo.'" Sviggum said.

DFL leaders had a much different view of the session's outcome. They say the budget will result in higher property taxes, fee increases, tuition hikes and an erosion of Minnesota's quality of life.

Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger of St. Peter says budget cuts will force as many as 19,000 Minnesotans to lose health coverage.

"Thirteen thousand nursing home residents paying $2,000 a year more for nursing home care, disabled people losing resources to help them get to work and others losing child care so they have to go on welfare. It's a horrendous budget, and if the economy improves and we have some additional revenues, I think the people of Minnesota deserve to start getting back the quality of life and the state they used to have before this budget passed," Hottinger said.

The Republicans are internally much more unified than the Democrats. They have a smattering of moderates, but most of them are pretty conservative. ... The unified party wins.
- Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College

Nine first-term House DFLers gathered outside of Gov. Pawlenty's office to accuse the governor of breaking promises with his budget solution. They presented Pawlenty's office with a so-called honesty pledge they want the governor to sign.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, says the budget passed by the Legislature will cost many Minnesotans more for government.

"The truth is, the state is increasing fees by hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years. The truth is, the state is using some of these fee increases to balance the budget, not to provide more or better services. The truth is, college tuition is expected to increase by double digits over the next two years because of state cuts to higher education," he said.

DFLers say cuts in aid to cities and school districts will result in higher property taxes. Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna disputes that. He says Democrats assume that local governments won't tighten their belts.

"I think that city council members and county board members and mayors, I think they're going to be prudent and realize that we're in a time of tough economics, and that we're all... they're going to have to step up to the plate just like the state did," Day said.

The local government aid cuts in the tax bill have created a rift in the Senate DFL caucus. Some Democrats think Majority Leader Hottinger should have done more to stop Republican-backed budget cuts. DFL Senator Tom Bakk of Cook says the tax bill unfairly targets the Iron Range. It gives some communities that receive tax money from the taconite industry less state aid. Bakk says aid to the city of Virginia will be cut by nearly a fourth, and Duluth will lose about 15 percent of its local government aid.

"I feel like my region of the state has been singled out, and it hurts. It hurts a lot that I have to go home and explain to the people that I represent that we were treated differently. So it stings. It stings pretty bad," he said.

Bakk says he'll always be a Democrat, but is still weighing whether he wants to remain in the DFL caucus. Hottinger says he understands why Bakk and other Democrats are upset, but says Republicans proposed even deeper cuts in aid to Iron Range communities.

DFL Senator Dean Johnson of Willmar says Hottinger was outnumbered in negotiating with a Republican governor and a Republican House. Johnson says Hottinger needed reinforcements at the bargaining table, and should have included more DFL committee chairs.

"John's heart's in the right place; he's worked very hard for our caucus and with our caucus. I think on the human side, he's just wore out; he's just physically, mentally wore out, and that's why I said, 'bring some other folks in to reinforce your negotiations,'" Johnson said.

Frustration over the end-of-session negotiations is not limited to the Senate DFL caucus. Lawmakers in both parties were upset about the closed-door nature of the talks. There were only a handful of conference committee meetings in special session, and all of the final budget negotiations were done in private.

Republican Senator Bill Belanger of Bloomington was appointed to the tax conference committee, but says he had no input into most of the bill.

"I'm in my 23rd year, and I've never seen anything like this this year. You know, just a few people decided every bill. The whole reason for a conference committee is so competing philosophical positions can come together and find an area to compromise. Politics is the art of compromise, but we seem to have forgotten that."

Over the course of Belanger's Senate career, he's seen former governors Al Quie, Rudy Perpich, Arne Carlson and Jesse Ventura deal with deficits. Belanger says taxes were always an option with previous governors. He says they weren't on the table this time, so Gov. Pawlenty dictated the parameters of the tax bill. Both Pawlenty and Speaker Sviggum have said if Minnesota's economy doesn't improve and the state faces another significant deficit, they haven't completely ruled out a tax increase.

Pawlenty flies around the state Monday to talk about the session, while DFL leaders begin a 19-city tour to highlight their concerns.

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