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Minnesota lawmakers have little to show for months of work
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"We'd like to see sexual predators locked up, yes. We've got to solve the budget, yes. But I'm not sure what changes, governor, if you call a special session without a prior agreement," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Lawmakers have returned to their homes for the year with little to show for the 2004 legislative session. The gavel came down Sunday morning with most of the major issues unresolved.

St. Paul, Minn. — If you're a hunter, you got a new season for mourning doves. If you're a state trooper, you got a tougher drunken driving standard, starting in summer '05. If you're a student in kindergarten through high school, you got new science and social studies standards. If you're Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, you got a pink slip. Otherwise, if you slept through the last four months, you didn't miss much. Left unresolved: a $160 million projected deficit; unapproved, hundreds of millions of dollars in public works projects; unchanged, sex offender sentences; unaccomplished, new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings; and uncertain, the future of gambling in Minnesota.

First the budget: compared to last year's multi-billion headache, this year's task seemed more than manageable, but House and Senate negotiators not only couldn't find common ground, they couldn't even agree on a structure for holding discussions.

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Image A lesson in politics

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson calls that irresponsible. Carlson says the state has mostly responded to its fiscal problems by raiding reserve funds and pushing the problem into the future. And that means next year the state is likely to face a deficit that could top $1 billion once inflation is included.

"Just imagine what would happen if one of our major corporations here in Minnesota said, 'Hey, guys, we're going to shift our accounts; we're going to shade, if you will, our revenues; and we're going to cover up the real story.' That's scandalous," Carlson said.

Gov. Pawlenty has said he'll correct the problem on his own authority, in part by spending $80 million from a health care fund surplus and by instructing state agencies to trim their budgets by 3 percent.

But Marcia Avner says the bulk of that solution merely borrows against the future. And Avner, who runs the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits, says the agency reductions could have immediate effects on programs that rely on state grants.

"And that can be anything from mental health services to homeless shelters to battered women's programs to food shelves to a whole array of services that people really need and really are counting on," she said.

Taxpayers should be very happy with what happened, because none of the really stupid things happened.
- David Strom

Lawmakers also failed to reach agreement on long-term investments in the state's infrastructure. Popularly known as the "bonding bill," the legislation contained millions of dollars for construction around the state, including money for upgrades at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.

U of M Vice President Richard Pfutzenreuter says failure to approve the plan will leave the school's assets in disrepair. He notes, for example, the chemistry building Kolthoff Hall on the Minneapolis campus.

"That building is desperately in need of health and safety. It's terrible air-handling; it's unsafe. And we need to use the building. It will be continued to be used. It's just in a very unsafe condition," he said.

Pfutzenreuter says it could now be up to two years before the building can hope to receive the $16 million in state assistance that the university sought. Also in the bonding bill was money for the Northstar commuter rail line between Minneapolis and its northwestern suburbs.

Duane Grandy, a Benson County commissioner and chair of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority, says the lack of funding will jeopardize the rail line's request for more than $100 million in federal matching money.

"We're hoping that the two sides will get together. The governor -- and we're going to ask that the governor call a special session. Naturally, he's going to want them to have a decision made before he calls a special session. But it's critical that we get the $37.5 million for the Northstar this year," according to Grandy.

Pawlenty declined to comment on the session's outcome, and he's given no final word on whether he'd convene a special session to tackle these issues. Northstar, in particular, had support from Pawlenty along with Republican leaders in the House and DFLers in the Senate.

The governor and the two bodies also agreed on toughening standards for sexual predators. But despite consensus on those issues, Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says a special session would need specific agreements spelled out in detail or it's likely to get tangled in the web of politics and distrust that spawned the do-little regular session. His advice to Pawlenty? "No special session shall be called unless there be a, certainly, a prior-to agreement on the specific issues that would be brought forward. We'd like to see a bonding bill, yes. We'd like to see sexual predators locked up, yes. We've got to solve the budget, yes. But I'm not sure what changes, governor, if you call a special session without a prior agreement."

Other victims of the gridlock include new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins and Vikings as well as the University of Minnesota's Gophers football program. A stack of gambling plans also stalled -- pleasing, perhaps, most Native American tribes who have guarded their existing casinos from competition, but driving supporters of new casinos to vow they'll return next year.

Not everyone, though, is expressing disappointment. David Strom, the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which advocates for smaller government, opposes Northstar, stadiums, and gambling expansion, and he says he's mostly satisfied with this year's results.

"Most people wouldn't have noticed much of what happened at the state Legislature anyway. And so, the fact that they didn't accomplish that much is more embarassing to the people at the Capitol than it is damaging to everyone else. You know, taxpayers should be very happy with what happened, because none of the really stupid things happened," Strom said.

But Strom worries this year's deadlock is bad omen for next year. The bitterness that marked the 2004 session is not likely to fade quickly. Just before the Senate adjourned, Republicans tried one last time to advance a proposed constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriages. Their pleas were ignored, prompting Republican Minority Leader Dick Day to blame the DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

"Sen. Johnson, go hide under your desk, will you?" Day said on the Senate floor. "Let the press go find you underneath your desk. You are a good communicator with the press... and nobody else."

Johnson, however, says the Republicans were acting out of order and had failed to follow Senate protocols. But he says he's optimistic that next year will start fresh.

"I'm always willing to move on and shake hands and provide an olive branch and let yesterday be gone. Today and tomorrow's a new day. That's the way it is. Politics is rough and tumble -- not for the faint-hearted, I will tell you that," Johnson said.

Though the issues may be largely the same next time -- and the deficit significantly larger -- there will be one less pressure: none of the lawmakers is up for election then. This year, all 134 members of the House will face voters in November.

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