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Senate Democrats propose budget deficit fix
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Senate DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson is proposing a bill to balance the state's budget, without including many of Gov. Pawlenty's new proposals. "We are balancing the budget and then we will move forward with new initiatives," says Johnson. (MPR file photo)
In a departure from the traditional budget process, Senate Democrats proposed Monday a plan to erase the state's projected $466 million budget deficit. The plan is unusual because it deals only with the deficit, and is silent on major spending priorities. Republicans say the Senate approach is a gimmick that won't lead to a serious budget solution.

St. Paul, Minn. — Senate DFL leaders say they're taking a thoughtful approach to the state budget by dealing with the deficit first, before talking about spending priorities. It's also an unusual approach that veteran lawmakers say has never been tried.

Their plan would take care of about half of the projected $466 million deficit with some tax changes Gov. Pawlenty has proposed, such as extending taxes on alcohol and car rentals that are set to expire. The rest of the shortfall would be resolved through spending cuts, primarily from Pawlenty's budget.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, says Republicans should embrace the plan, because it draws on Pawlenty's budget recommendations.

"It is a hand across the aisle in trying to work with the governor in endorsing his cuts ... and also his revenue raisers, whether you call them tax increases or not," says Rest.

We ought to be talking about education funding first, and have that lead the discussion of how we balance the budget.
- Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins

Pawlenty chief of staff Dan McElroy says if Senate Democrats truly wanted to work with Republicans, they would have talked to the governor's office and Republican legislative leaders about their plan before releasing it.

"This is not the way that we do budgets in Minnesota," McElroy says. "It is not credible, for a caucus that hasn't passed a biennial budget since 2001, to say that we're going to do this little piece of a budget, so that we can't have the pressures of a normal process at the end of session."

McElroy says if Senate Democrats succeed in passing their plan, K-12 education funding would be frozen at current levels for two years, and health and human services spending would continue to rise unchecked.

Gov. Pawlenty has proposed an increase of nearly $500 million in education spending, and cuts in state health care programs that would eliminate coverage for at least 27,000 people.

Senate DFLers say their budget-balancing plan is merely a first step, and they'll pass other bills later to fund important priorities. Majority Leader Dean Johnson says the debate over how to pay for those priorities will come later.

"We just want to balance the budget today, and as far as any further resources for education and health care and other programs ... that will be a debate post-Easter," says Johnson.

Johnson says he doesn't know if Senate Democrats will propose a tax increase, but he says it's clear that the public is demanding more money for schools and roads and other areas.

At least one member of Johnson's caucus doesn't like the approach. The chair of the Senate Education committee, Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, says he'll vote against the bill.

"We ought to be talking about education funding first, and have that lead the discussion of how we balance the budget," says Kelley.

Senate Democrats expect to pass their plan this week before lawmakers head home for a five-day Easter break. House Republican leaders say they have no intention of taking up the plan so early in the session, with about two months left before the May 23 deadline for adjournment.

House Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum says the plan would allow Senate Democrats to walk away from contentious budget negotiations at the end.

"You can see two months from now, the Senate saying, 'The budget's balanced, we don't need to do anything, we don't need to move ahead and make priorities,'" Sviggum says. "I think that you can see that that would totally underfund K-12 education."

Sviggum says House Republican leaders will release their budget targets in the next couple of weeks. He says the House GOP plan will closely mirror the governor's budget, and will not raise state taxes.

If reaction to the Senate DFL plan is any indication, the House and Senate could be headed for the same dilemma as last session. Then, the two bodies passed vastly different budget approaches, and couldn't even agree on how to form conference committees to work out differences.