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Sviggum: 'It's too late'
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Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says it's probably too late for lawmakers to pass any major pending legislation before the end of the session Monday. He was a guest on MPR's Midday program from the Capitol Friday. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Three days before the mandated end of the legislative session, all of the major issues remain unresolved. DFLers rejected the budget fix proposed Thursday by Gov. Pawlenty and Republican leaders. Barring a last-minute deal, the Legislature may adjourn Monday without passing a budget-balancing plan, a capital investment bill, new academic standards and a host of other issues.

St. Paul, Minn. — Normally, the last few days of the legislative session are a flurry of activity, with conference committee meetings, long floor sessions and leadership negotiations. This week, only a couple of conference committees met, neither body met past 9 p.m., and House and Senate leaders communicated largely through the media, instead of in person.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says it appears the Legislature will adjourn without agreeing on major issues.

"It's too late to do anything this year, yes," sighs Sviggum. "It's too late."

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Image Sen. Pogemiller

Sviggum says he's disappointed, because both the House and Senate have been talking about some of the same priorities.

"And that'd be balancing the budget, that'd be a bill for sexual predators, to lock them up for life, that'd be a capital investment bill, and that'd be some health care reform," says Sviggum.

Senate Democrats say the sticking point is that House Republicans want to work out differences behind closed doors, and the Senate wants public negotiations. Taxes committee chairman Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, says Republicans' latest budget offer is just another backroom deal. Pogemiller says Gov. Pawlenty didn't negotiate with Democrats, he simply held a press conference.

"You can't pass press releases into law. You need a bill," says Pogemiller. "And the forum for that bill would be the negotiations conference committee that includes the top leadership of the House and Senate, you know, and the governor could be there too if he wanted to."

Gov. Pawlenty has already erased most of the projected $160 million budget deficit using his own authority. He says if the Legislature fails to act, he may take care of the rest on his own as well.

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Image Rotunda

But if there's no legislative action, state finance officials say there's a risk the bond rating agencies will downgrade Minnesota's credit rating. Minnesota currently has a high credit rating that allows the state and local governments to borrow money at low interest rates.

If the Legislature fails to pass a capital investment bill, dozens of construction projects around the state would be on hold. About one-third of the projects in both the House and Senate bills are building projects at Minnesota colleges and universities. Linda Kohl, associate vice chancellor of the MnSCU system, says a bonding bill would borrow money for new science buildings, labs and building maintenance.

"If we don't repair a leaky roof now, or replace a leaky roof, it could get worse and cause interior damage that would be much more expensive to fix in the next couple of years," says Kohl.

Many lawmakers say the state should take advantage of current low interest rates and start projects this year. Doing so would create thousands of construction jobs around the state.

Another issue caught up in the legislative stalemate is new academic standards in social studies and science. The lead House negotiator on the standards, Rep. Alice Seagren, R-Bloomington, says the social studies standards could probably wait until next year, but she says the science standards are critical this year.

Seagren says the federal No Child Left Behind law requires new science tests starting in the fall of 2005, and teachers can't prepare students for the tests without new standards.

"That will be one year less that they have to teach the standards, and then they'll go right into testing if we postpone it another year," Seagren says. "So I think that's going to be a little bit rougher on teachers and students, to not know exactly what they're going to be tested on."

Seagren says she hopes that "cooler heads will prevail," and legislators can agree on new standards. But Seagren says the standards conference committee is on hold until there's agreement on the budget.

Lawmakers are quickly running out of time. The state Constitution prohibits them from passing bills on Monday, the last day of the session, and they've agreed not to meet on Sunday. That leaves just one more day, if the Legislature has any hope of resolving major issues during the regular session.

Gov. Pawlenty has said if lawmakers don't finish their work, they shouldn't count on him calling them back in special session.

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