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House leaders face off in first debate
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House Democratic leader Matt Entenza, left, and Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum, right, faced off in the first of a series of debates over legislative issues at the State Fair Wednesday. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Republican and DFL legislative leaders held the first in a series of statewide debates Wednesday in an effort to influence the make-up of the state House next year. Currently, the GOP holds a comfortable 81-53 seat majority in the House. But Democrats say they're eager to trim that lead or even recapture the majority. The election outcome will be a key factor in how the state addresses a potential budget shortfall of up to $1 billion.

St. Paul, Minn. — The last legislative session ended with an unusual level of discord and a raft of unfinished business. Left on the table were the budget, public works projects, and public safety reforms. That record will be the background against which all 134 House races will play out this fall -- and Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon is eager to spread the blame.

During a live State Fair debate on AM 1500's morning program with Ron Rosenbaum and Mark O'Connell, Sviggum noted that the House passed all of its key initiatives. The process broke down, he says, when it came time to compromise with the DFL-led Senate.

"But you still have to have a process, and you have to have a Senate that's willing to cooperate, willing to negotiate. And from the get-go, the Senate was unwilling to move ahead in the best interests of Minnesota," Sviggum says.

The Senate's 67 seats aren't up for election until 2006 -- and that body wasn't represented at the Fair debate. But DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul responded on behalf of Democrats, accusing Sviggum of passing the buck.

"I think the biggest problem we've had is that we've had this, 'My way or the highway,' and turn around and blame somebody else," Entenza says. "We should have sat down. We should have had a compromise, and the deal should have gotten done. And now we've got this ridiculous stalemate and a Legislature that's not working."

Entenza called on Minnesota voters to pass the torch to House Democrats this November. Republicans took control of that body in the 1998 elections -- and Entenza says the atmosphere in St. Paul won't change until the DFL is returned to the majority.

"The reality is that unless we get some new leadership, unless we get some new folks in there that are willing to compromise, we're not going to do better," says Entenza.

Entenza's comments came in response to fair-goers, who were skeptical about why they should trust either party to represent voters' interests.

Sviggum says despite this year's lackluster record, GOP leadership has delivered on most of its promises, including wiping out a $4.5 billion deficit last year without an increase in general state taxes. Next year, he says the dynamic will change, in part, because the Senate will be facing an election cycle.

"The Senate will then be up for election the next turn. It can't be any more 'We don't need anything; we're not up for election,'" says Sviggum.

Next year will also be a budget-setting year. Failure to act by midsummer would force a government shutdown, which Sviggum says adds incentive to compromise. But the state is likely to face a deficit of up to $400 million, which could grow to $1 billion if inflation is included.

Republicans have recently advocated new gambling opportunities to fill state coffers. And last week, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe offered to share some revenues for public purposes if the state authorized new games -- such as sports betting or simulcast horse racing. Entenza says he welcomes the suggestion.

"We're Minnesota. We're not Las Vegas. And I'm not sure we want to start putting huge casinos right in the middle of Interstate 494," Entenza says. "But we've got the ball moving forward, we've got some discussions, there's some positive things happening. I think that's a good thing."

Sviggum has -- of late -- been a strong advocate for allowing non-Indian interests to operate casinos. And he says that, given the state's fiscal shape, the state will demand new gaming revenues in one form or another.

"Either there's going to be competitive gaming, or there's going to be a significant change in the resources that the state receives or doesn't receive from an equity standpoint in the current gaming operation," he says.

Sviggum says he's not sure the Mille Lacs proposal goes far enough or would produce an appropriate level of state funds. But he, too, says it indicates a willingness to negotiate from all sides.

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