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Special session looms as lawmakers consider the season of compromise
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The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, DFLer Dick Cohen of St. Paul, says Senate Democrats won't agree to a budget fix that makes deeper cuts in health and human services programs. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota Legislature must adjourn in a little over two weeks, and lawmakers have yet to send Gov. Pawlenty a major piece of legislation. The House and Senate haven't even appointed negotiators to work out differences in budget bills. Legislative leaders say they can still finish their work on time if both sides are willing to compromise, but that may be a big 'if.'

St. Paul, Minn. — Pick an issue: balancing the budget, tougher sex offender penalties, a capital investment bill, academic standards, a stadium bill. The Minnesota House and Senate have yet to agree on any of them, and the list could go on. Not a single conference committee has met to begin working out the differences. Still, veteran lawmakers say that's not a huge problem..

"There's plenty of time; you take four or five days -- plenty of time," says Sen. Keith Langseth, a DFLer from Glyndon, who has served in the Legislature for three decades. He predicts a flurry of activity in the final five days of the session. Langseth says legislative leaders simply have to agree on the overall parameters of the bills, and the rest will fall into place fairly easily. But Langseth says that will only happen if House Republicans are willing to compromise.

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Image No reason for delay, Sviggum says

"I think we've always understood that, and the other side -- because of certain things that happened last year -- they thought they could get their way on everything," he said.

Last year, Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans achieved nearly all of their legislative agenda, and Senate Democrats walked away with very little. This year, they have a new majority leader in Dean Johnson of Willmar, who has said that Democrats won't cave in to Republicans' demands.

A couple of the major differences: House Republicans want to balance the budget in part with money from a proposed casino at Canterbury Park, while Senate Democrats want to tighten corporate tax laws and eliminate some upper-level administrators in the Pawlenty administration.

Governor Pawlenty said on his weekly radio show that he hopes Johnson and his caucus want to agree on a budget fix.

"There's a lot of speculation around that because it's really not a budget year, the budget for a two-year cycle has already been set for a two-year period, that there's really no need to fix this year's small deficit, they're just going to let it roll over into next year, and comments like that. I hope that's not true," Pawlenty said.

The Legislature isn't required to do anything this session. The state has a projected $160 million deficit, but that gap could be plugged by money from the state's budget reserves.

The chair of the Senate Finance Committee, DFLer Dick Cohen of St. Paul, says Senate Democrats won't agree to a budget fix that makes deeper cuts in health and human services programs as Gov. Pawlenty proposed.

"There's no question that if the Republican governor and the Republican House are going to be obstinate, and stonewall any attempt to work on these issues in a way that's much more palatable to people throughout the state of Minnesota, then it becomes very difficult to accomplish anything," he said.

Republican leaders say they're willing to compromise. House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says there's no reason the Legislature can't finish by the May 17 deadline for adjournment.

"If we can get the agreements so we can start conference committees next week, they work all next weekend, we can get her done. And if we don't, I think that's a really bad statement, and I don't know what coming back in special session would prove," according to Sviggum.

A special session could also be problematic for many House members, who want to work on their re-election campaigns once the session ends. All 134 House seats are on the ballot this year, while the Senate and governor won't face re-election for another two years. Some political observers think all of these factors are pointing to a session that adjourns without accomplishing anything.

Republican Sarah Janecek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, says the public may not even notice.

"And what's going on in the real world is people don't particularly care what's going on at the state level. They're very engaged in what's going on at the federal level and with the war," she said.

Janecek says the public isn't clamoring for a budget solution to a relatively small deficit, and the Legislature could adjourn without passing either a bonding bill or a stadium bill. If that happens, lawmakers will have met for three-and-a-half months, and not have much to show for it.

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