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Special session gets off to showy start
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Senate Majority Dean Johnson, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other state leaders crowded around a table in Pawlenty's office Tuesday in an attempt to untangle a dispute that forced them into overtime. The session began 12 hours earlier and has no set end date. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Pawlenty and legislative leaders on Tuesday threw open the doors to their usually private negotiating sessions, inviting curious onlookers to observe budget talks that led nowhere. Lawmakers convened to resolve thorny budget issues that remain the source of deep divisions. Without an agreement by June 30, significant areas of state government would run out of funding and shut down. But the budget talks showed little momentum.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty convened the 45-minute discussion in his reception room, and extended future invitations to keep meeting throughout the week and into Memorial Day weekend. But judging from the barely concealed frustrations and occasional tensions, the offer may not bear much fruit.

Late last week, Pawlenty proposed a 75-cent-per-pack charge on cigarettes to jumpstart budget talks. So far, Senate Democrats haven't directly responded to that offer. The governor's plan would inject an extra $241 million into K-12 education and another $100 million into health care services. He says the question now is whether that's sufficient to meet DFL spending priorities.

"If that is insufficient from your perspective, perhaps our time is best spent identifying ... incremental, other ways to meet some of your needs or concerns in the health and human service area in addition to what we've put on the table," Pawlenty said.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson steadfastly refused to touch the subject of revenue, either how much is needed or how it might be raised. Instead, he requested that informal working groups pick up where House-Senate conference committees left off when the regular session ran out of time.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum agreed to set up the working groups, but argued they'll accomplish nothing unless the governor and legislative leaders agree to a global agreement that matches revenues to spending. Sviggum asked Johnson to return with a global Senate offer, but got no committment.

We're all posturing a little bit for our friends in the press.
- Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Johnson has said he prefers to let lawmakers hash out the details and tally up the costs of complicated education and health care budgets before resolving how to pay for them.

Coming from the other direction, House Republicans and the governor want to define the size of the overall budget first and then decide how to allocate revenue.

Sviggum and Pawlenty showed mounting impatience with Johnson's reluctance to offer a big-picture solution. But Johnson says it's too early in the special session to expect a quick fix.

"We're not stalling whatsoever," he said. "Memorial Day is just around the corner, and I'd love nothing more than to be heading home to Willmar. But we're going to stay here and work and encourage our members to go to the conference committees."

Sviggum says the conference committees can't make final decisions on how much to spend until leaders decide how to divvy up the budget pie. He says gathering lawmakers into a handful of working groups is will produce more theater than progress.

"It's the smokescreen to try to take attention away from the real need of finishing the session, finishing the deal, coming to a solution of the resources that are available. It's the smokescreens out here to make people think we're getting the job done," he said.

Pawlenty and Sviggum have agreed to convene another round of leadership talks on Wednesday Whether that generates momentum, whether the Senate even attends, or whether it, too, vanishes in so much smoke remains to be seen.