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DFL Senate majority puts out spending plan; avoids tax talk
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DFL Senate leader Dean Johnson refused to discuss possible tax increases to pay for increased spending. "I have direction from my caucus that my lips are sealed like a cardinal in the conclave voting for the pope," Johnson, a Lutheran minister from Willmar, said. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Senate DFL leaders Wednesday outlined a plan for about $1 billion in new state spending. Most of the money would go to public schools. Senate Democrats did not say where the money would come from, however, and Republican leaders promptly blasted the plan.

St. Paul, Minn. — Two days before the deadline for budget bills to clear finance committees, Senate Democrats called for additional spending in most areas of state government.

The biggest chunk, nearly $800 million, would go to K-12 schools and early childhood education. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says Minnesotans have to decide whether they want to fully fund education, public safety and health care for low-income Minnesotans.

"I believe this budget will come down to a battle for the heart and soul of Minnesota's future," Johnson says.

Johnson says the budgets proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and House Republicans would lead to higher property taxes and higher fees, and would rely on gambling money. He says the Senate DFL budget will not include any of those revenue sources, but he wouldn't say what taxes would rise to pay for the new spending.

"I have direction from my caucus that my lips are sealed like a cardinal in a conclave voting for pope," Johnson, who is a Lutheran minister, said.

Johnson says options being discussed include higher taxes on cigarettes, clothing and upper-income Minnesotans. He says the Senate tax bill will take shape in the next couple of weeks.

Gov. Pawlenty says that's too late, since there's only about a month left in the session. He says the Senate plan shows a lack of leadership.

"If they're going to jack up our taxes -- or try to -- then at least have the courtesy and the courage to put it on the table before the 11th hour of the legislative session so we can have the debate," says Pawlenty. "But they're running, they're hiding, they're ducking, they're bobbing, they're weaving, and they need to be called out."

Senate DFL leaders say there's still time for the public to weigh in on the tax issue. They say their plan is more straightforward than the House Republican budget, which includes two sets of spending caps -- one set if a gambling bill passes, another if it doesn't.

House GOP leaders say they're being upfront about their two scenerios, unlike Senate Democrats. DFL staff handed out a one-page summary of the spending priorities, making it difficult to compare the plan to the House or governor's budgets in most areas.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the lack of detail in the Senate plan is laughable.

"What we have is a secret budget from the Senate, from the DFL, and they're going to end up -- we're going to steal the taxpayers' checkbook, that's what we're going to do," says Sviggum.

Sviggum says House Republicans will stand with Gov. Pawlenty on his no-tax-increase stance. Sviggum says a tax hike is not negotiable, and Pawlenty says he won't sign a budget bill that includes one.

Senate Democrats say Pawlenty's budget will raise taxes, namely, property taxes. They say they believe property taxes and fee hikes are more burdensome to Minnesotans than a statewide tax increase. Johnson says the public will decide which approach they prefer.

"Do you want a bumper sticker that says 'No new taxes,' and in the next breath, 'Increase the tax and fee liability on the people of Minnesota $2.5 billion?'" says Johnson. "Or do you want all of us to put that dollar a day into the tax coffers, into the kitty, and say, no, what we want is a transit system, safer roads, we want better course offerings, more alternatives for our children, we want lower tuition at the university."

Johnson says the Senate DFL will roll out its spending bills in the next couple of days, in time to meet Friday's deadline for them to clear finance committees. The House budget bills are also moving through committees, and a couple could be voted on by the full House by the end of the week.

Legislative leaders say they're on pace to finish their work by the May 23 deadline for adjournment, but many observers are becoming increasingly skeptical.