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Pawlenty, Hatch feud as state shutdown nears
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Mike Hatch hasn't officially declared himself a candidate for Gov. Pawlenty's job, but he's sent several letters to DFL activists testing the gubernatorial waters. Pawlenty says that raises a possible conflict of interest. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is asking Attorney General Mike Hatch to consider stepping aside in the event a budget impasse requires a court order to keep critical state services running. Lawmakers and the governor remain at odds over how much the state can afford for health care and public schools. If a compromise budget isn't in place by the end of the month, funding for those programs and others could run dry without a court order to keep essential services operating. But Pawlenty -- a Republican -- is suggesting that Hatch -- a Democrat -- has political ambitions that should perhaps disqualify him from participating in any court petitions.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Tim Pawlenty maintains that budget disagreements between himself and Senate Democrats are manageable, and that there's no reason a satisfactory solution can't be in place before the current budget runs out on June 30t

In a worst-case scenario, though, he says his administration may need to seek court authority to keep critical services running.

But Pawlenty says he's not sure Attorney General Mike Hatch can separate his duties as the state's top lawyer from his own political aspirations, which could include a direct match-up with Pawlenty in the 2006 elections.

Hatch hasn't officially declared himself a candidate for Pawlenty's job, but he's sent several letters to DFL activists testing the gubernatorial waters. Pawlenty says that raises a possible conflict of interest.

"Our attorney can't also be simultaneously our political opponent," Pawlenty says. "That's a very awkward posture. And, again, the situation's going to be tense enough as it is if it gets to that point, and awkward enough as it is without having that extra layer of complexity or tension or conflict."

In a letter to Hatch, Pawlenty asks him to consider stepping aside, saying "the 2006 election should not compromise the public's interest."

Pawlenty and Hatch have a history of squabbling and trading public barbs over each other's performance in office. But Hatch says Pawlenty has mistaken the respective roles of the governor and the attorney general.

In 2001, the state faced a similar budget crisis before a shutdown was averted at the last minute. Hatch says that at that time, his office successfully petitioned the courts to grant spending authority to a broad range of state officials. But he says in doing so, he represented the entire state of Minnesota, not just then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. He says if history repeats itself, he again won't be serving directly as the governor's legal advisor, and therefore any conflict between the two is irrelevant.

"We don't have a king. We have a state government," says Hatch. "And when we go into court, we represent state government and we ask the court, 'Will you fund those core functions?'"

Hatch says his office has already begun preparing a court petition but will only take action if, late in the month, budget talks remain stalled. In order to revive discussions, Pawlenty has proposed a 75-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes that would provide an extra $380 million over the next two years for health care and education.

Senate Democrats prefer a temporary income tax bracket that would fall on more than 40,000 of the state's highest-income earners.

Senate Taxes Committee Chair Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis says he's willing to scale that back from a nearly $800 million bite over two years to just over $630 million.

"Now that the governor's got a cigarette tax, we can come down on the high-income earners tax because the governor's been adamant that he is going to protect that 40,000 people. Alright, fine. We'll compromise," says Pogemiller.

But Pawlenty isn't any more receptive to a slimmed-down income tax hike. He insists he won't raise state taxes to balance the state budget, and considers his cigarette charge a "fee" rather than a "tax." Pogemiller says he's skeptical the cigarette proposal- would survive the legislative process. Pawlenty says the same is true of the DFL income tax hike.

"Their tax bill isn't going to pass the House; it hasn't passed the House. It's not going to get signed into law. And so, if they think I have a problem, they've got a problem four times as big because they can't pass their tax bill either. So they're running around the state promising people stuff that they're going to pay with Monopoly money. It doesn't exist," he says.

A shutdown could affect a broad range of non-critical services in education, health care and transportation. Layoff notices to state employees could start going out as early as next week as state officials hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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