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No signs of an end to budget stalemate
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Senate Democratic leader Dean Johnson says Gov. Pawlenty should be at the Capitol, negotiating, instead of flying around the state drumming up support for his budget proposal. (MPR file photo)
Senate Democrats say they won't discuss Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal for a 75-cents per pack cigarette tax until Republicans show they can pass the measure in the GOP-controlled House. That challenge was part of new back-and-forth charges as Pawlenty and lawmakers struggle to craft a state budget that will keep key government services running beyond July 1. But with little progress, administration officials say they're researching fall-back options in case funding dries up and state programs have to shut down.

St. Paul, Minn. — Just days before the regular legislative drew to a close, Gov. Pawlenty made a last-ditch effort to jump-start stalled budget talks by offering his 75-cents-per-pack cigarette proposal. The Republican governor's allies hailed it as a session-ending compromise. But it has so far failed to generate much excitement among Senate Democrats.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says he doubts the plan would even pass in the GOP-run House. And he suggested that until Republicans can prove otherwise, the Pawlenty cigarette plan isn't ready for discussion.

Johnson, meanwhile, says citizens still expect adequate funding for health care and education -- programs the Senate funds with significant tax increases, including a new upper-tier income tax bracket.

"There's a whole group of folks out there, called the majority of Minnesotans, that want it our way. And they want it for schools, and they want it for health care, and they want it for roads, and they want it for the environment," said Johnson.

But top Republican lawmakers and the governor say they're steadfastly against the Senate's medley of proposed tax increases. And House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he has no intention of bringing the governor's cigarette tax to the House floor for a test vote.

Sviggum -- who, along with Pawlenty, insists the cigarette charge is a "fee," not a "tax" -- says with time running out, the Senate's piecemeal approach to budget-building makes no sense.

Sviggum says the cigarette charge will pass the House, but only if it's part of a comprehensive, pre-negotiated package agreed to by legislative leaders and the governor before it goes to the full House and Senate.

Today's June 1st, folks. Have we been through this before? Yes. Are we going to give it our best effort to get it done? Yes.
- DFL Senate Leader Dean Johnson

"That's not part of what special session negotiations or what a special session global offer are. I don't know where Senator Johnson has been for the last 25 years," said Sviggum. "But the fact is leadership and the working groups come together with agreements, and then bring them up for votes in the House and Senate floors."

Sviggum says despite Pawlenty's offer to raise new revenue with his tobacco proposal, the Senate has yet to show a willingness to compromise. Johnson acknowledged that the Senate Democrats are more or less standing by the same positions they outlined weeks ago.

The deadlock persists despite growing pressure for a breakthrough. On July 1, several key government programs will run out of money unless a new budget is approved. That will hit state parks, state nursing home payments, and funding for school districts and local governments.

Johnson notes that in a little more than a week, the state will begin sending precautionary pink slips to workers who may be laid off in the event of a shutdown. But he says he doubts that, in the end, it will come to layoffs.

Today's June 1st, folks. Have you been through this before? Yes. Have we been through it before? Yes. Are we going to give it our best effort to get it done? Yes. And I'm optimistic," Johnson said.

But administration officials say they're nonetheless making preparations for the worst. Four years ago, budget negotiations were similarly knotty, leading to fears of a shut down and mass layoffs.

Pawlenty communications director Tom Mason says this year, state officials are again considering their options if there is no agreement on a budget.

"We don't want to make it part of the news by talking about it just yet, but, you know, those conversations have to be had. And they are being had," Mason said.

In 2001 a government shutdown was averted at the last moment, with then-Gov. Jesse Ventura signing important budget bills on the last day of June.