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Lawmakers frustrated at sitting on the sidelines
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A group of bipartisan lawmakers discussed plans to try to broker a deal without any input from legislative leaders. They say their frustrated at being left on the sidelines of the budget negotiations. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
As the state prepares for a possible government shutdown next week, frustration is growing among rank and file legislators. Several state lawmakers say they've heard plenty of citizen complaints, and are frustrated themselves that they aren't more involved in the budget process. They say they've been cut out of negotiations and are worried they may take the blame if a shutdown occurs on July 1.

St. Paul, Minn. — During the month-long special session, state lawmakers have had to travel from all over Minnesota to St. Paul for scheduled floor sessions. Twice a week, they make a trip that can take hours, for a required floor session that lasts less than an hour. In some cases, lawmakers are in and out in a matter of minutes.

The continuing budget impasse is starting to bother rank and file legislators on both sides of the aisle.

"I swear, some days it seems like the whole Legislature runs out of brains or something," says Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. He is a first-term lawmaker who is fearful that he'll be a part of the first Legislature that forces a partial government shutdown.

"There is going to be one. I wish there wasn't. I had a lot of hope," says Garafalo. "As a first-term legislator I came here to get things done, and it's pretty disappointing that we're on the cusp of failure."

Garofolo says he's working with other lawmakers to broker a deal without any input from legislative leaders. To date, he's been unsuccessful.

The continued gridlock is changing how some lawmakers perceive their jobs. Rep. Larry Hosch, DFL-St. Joseph, is also in his first term. He says legislative leaders should allow the entire Legislature to vote on all of their ideas instead of negotiating behind closed doors.

"I came down here with a bunch of idealism that has collided with reality. We ought to be able to get to work," says Hosch. "We ought to be allowed to air our differences. If we don't know our differences, we should vote on them."

We can embarass the leadership into talking to each other. We have been way too polite and restrained, but I don't think you'll see a whole lot of patience.
- Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park

Hosch says he's disappointed that legislative leaders and Gov. Pawlenty seem more concerned about the 2006 election than creating a quality budget. Every legislative seat and the governor's office is on the ballot in 2006.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, says the entire Legislature will look bad if a shutdown occurs. He says the public gets more and more cynical every time the governor calls a special session. There have been nine special sessions in the last 11 years.

"They kind of do this budget dance, never really coming together and consummating the marriage, if you will, and making it happen," says Nienow. "And they sit back and look at that and say, 'If I did that in my job, I would either not make any money or get fired.'"

Nienow says it's possible several incumbents could lose their jobs if a shutdown occurs. But Sen. Julianne Ortman R-Chanhassen, disagrees. Ortman has said she feels like she's sitting at the kiddie table during Thanksgiving dinner. She says the public will understand that she and many other lawmakers are out of loop in budget negotiations.

"The electorate is smart. They see what's happening here and they see that we've been benched," says Ortman. "That we're back to this system of tenure and that the people have been here are doing the same thing that we've always been doing, and we don't really have as much control as we would like to have."

There have been several efforts to take that control back. Lawmakers in the House have had the chance to take the power out of the hands of legislative leaders and force the full House to debate and vote on different spending proposals without any direction from legislative leaders. The proposal has been defeated every time it's been brought up.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, says she expects a greater number of complaints if legislative leaders don't reach a compromise soon.

"We can make a whole lot of noise and we can embarass the leadership into talking to each other," says Ortman. "We have been way too polite and restrained, but I don't think you'll see a whole lot of patience."

Hortman and other lawmakers won't have too much time to voice their frustrations. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate aren't scheduled to hold another floor session until Monday -- just four days before a partial government shutdown would occur.