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Leaders say close, but cigar not yet lit, on session-ending deal
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Steve Sviggum insisted that if that process didn't work, that he, Johnson and Gov. Tim Pawlenty sit in a room and cut the deal in public view. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Pawlenty flew around the state Tuesday to pressure lawmakers to finish their work. With less than a week left in the session, all of the major issues are still unresolved. House and Senate leaders continue to wrangle over how to bring an orderly end to the session, and time is running out.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty began the day in Duluth, where he presented a top 10 list of reasons the Legislature should finish on time. They include creating as many as 10,000 construction jobs with the bonding bill, balancing the budget and locking up sexual predators. He says Minnesotans should be angry if lawmakers don't pass major bills.

"We pay 'em to get the work done, we pay 'em to get the job done, and simply walking off the job is unacceptable," Pawlenty says. "And I think the people of Minnesota, the people of the Northland, should say shame on you."

Pawlenty says the Legislature needs leaders who can close a deal, and says DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar isn't one of them. The governor says Johnson appears to be controlled by his caucus, and unable to make decisions on his own.

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Image Deal? No deal?

Johnson says the governor isn't helping negotiations by flying around the state bashing Senate Democrats. He says his caucus is committed to finishing the Legislature's work, but wants to negotiate in public.

Johnson has proposed a complicated three-tiered system of conference committees to work out differences. One committee would balance the budget and set a spending target for a second-tier appropriations committee, that would then divvy up money for a third tier of five committees in areas such as education and crime prevention. Johnson says he won't negotiate behind closed doors with a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled House.

"And my simple mathematics always comes up with two against one. And as I said to someone yesterday, this is the House negotiating with the Senate," says Johnson. "This is not a two-for-one sale, this is not a spring sale, this is the last days of the legislative session, and we're going to negotiate in good faith. This is not going to be a repeat of 2003."

Senate Democrats are still smarting from the results of last year, when Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans got nearly everything they wanted. They say they're not going to cave into Republicans' demands this time.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says Democrats don't want to get anything done this session, so they can blame the governor and the House. He says the Senate conference committee proposal is so convoluted it's almost laughable.

"They're trying to show like they're doing something, that they're thinking about it and trying to make the show," says Sviggum. "In fact, they're doing nothing and just stalling and running out the clock."

Sviggum says he's willing to try the unusual three-tiered conference committee setup. But he says legislative leaders need a backup plan, in case the committees fail to agree on major issues.

Sviggum says if that happens, the governor and House and Senate leaders will have to work out a deal. And if that fails, Gov. Pawlenty says he may not call a special session, and he may plug the state's projected $160 million deficit on his own.

He's already ordered state agencies to cut spending and stop issuing grants. But Pawlenty said later in the day that the bond rating agencies would not look favorably on legislative gridlock.

"They would view the failure by the Legislature to be able to pass a bill under these almost walk-in-the-park circumstances to be a bad signal, when we're facing an even larger problem next year," Pawlenty says.

One agency, Moody's, has already downgraded Minnesota's bond rating. Legislative leaders say they don't want the governor to have to balance the budget. If that's the case, they only have a few days to do it themselves -- they say they want to pass bills by Saturday.

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