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No sign of compromise at the Capitol
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Rep. Steve Sviggum (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Signs of a possible compromise at the Capitol are quickly evaporating as Gov. Tim Pawlenty, House Republicans, and Senate Democrats returned to finger-pointing over the lack of accomplishment this year. The Legislature adjourned last month without resolving any of this year's major budget or policy questions. And the governor and House Republicans say Tuesday's Senate DFL proposal to reconvene is nothing more than a repackaged version of earlier, rejected options. Democrats in turn blame GOP leaders for holding the state's business hostage to the single issue of same-sex marriage.

St. Paul, Minn. — Three weeks after the end of the regular session, negotiators are more or less exactly where they were three weeks before the end of session: unable to agree on even a process for resolving their differences.

Senate DFLers say the remaining budget and investment options should be discussed in legislative working groups, free from the pressure of deadlines. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the Senate offer is unworthy of a response, particularly Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson's suggestion for an "open-ended deadline."

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Image Sen. Dean Johnson

"How embarrassing even to put that in black and white," said Sviggum. "Who's doing his thinking? Who's writing his news releases? I have no idea. Open-ended deadline. I've probably not heard a more evident oxymoron in my entire life than an open-ended deadline." But Johnson said that a timeline can be discussed later, after working groups are appointed and begin their deliberations.

"What we begged for and asked for repeatedly during the session: name the conference committees, name the working group members. If we can get to that point, we'll have made substantial headway in this process," Johnson said.

When leaders met late last week, Sviggum and Gov. Pawlenty agreed to push both a proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage and new casino proposals to the back-burner. House Republicans have voted in favor of both, but most Senate Democrats are opposed. In return for dropping those issues, Sviggum says he expected Johnson to likewise drop controversial issues favored by the DFL, including the elimination of certain corporate tax credits.

Sviggum and Pawlenty say that approach would allow action on so-called "consensus items" that all sides have expressed a willingness to act on. That includes tougher sentences for sex offenders, shaving off a portion of the state's projected budget deficit, and investing in public infrastructure.

But Johnson declined to focus solely on those issues. He says his caucus continues to support repealing the corporate tax credits and he won't concede that issue up front. He also appears unconvinced that Republicans are ready to put the issue of gay marriage aside. He says that issue has complicated other business, including millions of dollars in building projects across the state.

"You want to get buried down in a social agenda? Or do you want to put $900 million worth of investments in our state in the infrastructure? It will in fact improve our economy," he asked.

Johnson's concern is fed in part by statements by Senate Republicans. Although they form a minority in the Senate, Republican votes are necessary to borrow the money needed for many of the proposed public works projects. And GOP leaders have begun to flex their political muscles, arguing that they want a seat at negotiations and that the definition of marriage should be part of the agenda.

Minority Leader Dick Day, however, says he's ready to end talks until at least the fall.

"Let's face it, people just aren't getting along very good around here. And I don't think that we're going to gain anything. I just think this could go on for another month or six weeks, and everybody's going to get even more bitter about everything," Day said.

House Republicans say they, too, see no reason to continue discussions. In a written statement, Pawlenty rejected the Senate Democrats' most recent offer, but continued to hold out hope for approving "consensus items."

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