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Pawlenty moves to wipe out budget deficit, assign blame
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Last week, Gov. Pawlenty erased nearly $100 million of the shortfall by ordering state agencies to cut their budgets by 3 percent and halting the transfer of $80 million to the health care access fund, which pays for subsidized health insurance. Monday's cuts are on top of that (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is taking unilateral action to erase a projected $160 million deficit. Lawmakers adjourned over the weekend without breaking an impasse over how to balance the budget. Pawlenty says that left him no choice but to cover the shortfall through executive action. But he says his options as governor are more limited than the choices that were open to legislators. The governor squarely blamed Senate DFLers for this year's gridlock, only to find the finger pointing back at him.

St. Paul, Minn. — The governor's plan relies largely on a surplus in the Health Care Access Fund. That money normally supports MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health care program for low- and middle-income families. Pawlenty says the surplus can be spent down with no noticeable effect until 2007, at which point lawmakers can revisit the issue.

But health care advocates and DFLers are crying foul, and arguing the proposal will hurt the state's most vulnerable. The governor says he has little choice, and turned the criticism toward Senate Democrats, arguing they failed to produce a better alternative.

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Image The death of civility

"I'm not their nanny," the governor said. "I'm not their baby-sitter. I can help broker negotiations and discussions. But in the end, they have to be able to pass a bill. We now have a majority caucus in the state Senate that for two sessions in a row has been unable to pass a budget or a bonding bill as a caucus matter."

Pawlenty's plan also trims state agency budgets by 3 percent and freezes some bond sales that were intended to finance state construction projects. The governor says since taking office, he's had to use executive action to balance the budget twice, both times because of legislative stalemate. And he notes that last year's multi-billion dollar reduction plan was approved only because Senate DFLers stood aside and allowed a mainly Republican package to proceed.

DFLer Dean Johnson, who assumed his position as Senate majority leader this year, says the governor's analysis is flawed. Johnson acknowledges that the so-called bonding bill to fund capital improvements failed in the Senate. But he notes that the Senate, in fact, did pass bills balancing the budget this year, as well as tougher penalties for sex offenders and other hot button issues. It's just that those proposals never matched up with legislation approved by the House.

"We did our job, passed a balanced budget. We did pass a sexual predator initiative and did do our absolute best for the bonding bill. You know, there's an old adage that when you point your finger at someone or an institution, there's three fingers pointing back. And maybe this is true at this time as well," Johnson said.

Johnson says the governor appeared to check out of negotiations towards the end of the legislative session. During the last week, Pawlenty went on an outstate tour of Minnesota and went north for the annual fishing opener as the clock ran down.

"In the final days, there was some, let's say, travelling and sight-seeing going on on his part. And perhaps he should have been bringing some folks together. Committee chairs. Chief authors. What is it we need to do here to finish up the session?"

Pawlenty has said he has no intention of calling a special session at the moment. But he says he'll leave the possibility open, just in case lawmakers reach agreement on some of the year's key topics. Those include alternative budget balancing ideas, long-term state infrastructure investments, and tougher sex offender sentences. Pawlenty says, however, that he'll require the scope and substance of any special session to be agreed to in advance.

House Republicans seemed to escape the latest finger-pointing, although that may make little difference in the long run. Former Pawlenty chief of staff Charlied Weaver says the public tends to lump all legislators in the same basket and generally doesn't distinguish between House and Senate.

"I don't know that the public's going to be very terribly tolerant of that this time around, because ultimately, things didn't get done. Ultimately, the governor will always win the war of words, because he's got the podium at the end of the day," Weaver said.

Lawmakers will do their best to fight that perception with fly-around tours on Tuesday and visits with their constituents between now and next year's session.

Meanwhile, the Independence Party leaders held a mock memorial service at the state Capitol on Monday "to mark the death of common sense and civility."

They say partisan politics led to gridlock and a lack of progress on major issues during the legislative session that ended over the weekend.

Former Congressman Tim Penny, who ran for governor as an Independence Party member, says Minnesotans should hold both Republicans and Democrats responsible for spending taxpayer money on a failed legislative session.

"$7.5 million of wasted expenditure to support a legislative session that never got down to business, never tried to find that common ground, never tried to get Minnesota's business done in a serious way," he said.

Penny says Sheila Kiscaden, the only Independence Party legislator, tried to bridge the partisan gap, but was kicked out of the Senate Republican caucus. Independence Party officials say the Legislature needs more lawmakers like Kiscaden. They say they have 10 legislative candidates running in House races this fall.

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