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Ill will of legislative session may linger
Many state lawmakers say they intend to spend the next several weeks explaining, and sometimes apologizing, to their constituents about what caused a partial government shutdown. Nearly 9,000 state employees were furloughed and some state services came to a halt as a result of the eight-day shutdown. Some legislators say the inability to pass a budget by June 30 was purely political, while others blame it on an unwillingness to compromise.

St. Paul, Minn. — Not one lawmaker says anyone will benefit from the government shutdown, but that doesn't mean the blame game won't happen.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says the shutdown was unfortunate but necessary. He says the end result was no cuts in eligibility to state subsidized health care, and an increase in aid to cities. He says that was a better deal than what Gov. Pawlenty and House Republicans were offering on June 30.

"I invite the people of Minnesota to look at what was on the table on the 30th of June and what got passed in the last two weeks. There is a substantial difference," he said.

Others say the only thing that came out of the government shutdown was higher blood pressure levels for state employees.

On May 20th, the governor proposed a 75-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase as a compromise. The tax was later extended to smokeless tobacco and cigars to bring in an extra $20 million dollars.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon says he believes Senate Democrats wanted to make Gov. Pawlenty look bad. He says their strategy was simple.

"Politics," Sviggum said. "At the expense of Minnesota, at the expense of shutdown, at the expense of 9,000 state workers. I don't see anything in these bills that could not have been there on May 20th or certainly June 20th."

While legislative leaders stuck to their talking points, other lawmakers said Pawlenty, Sviggum and Johnson were either unwilling or unable to compromise.

DFL Senator Steve Murphy of Red Wing compared the budget negotiations to childhood games on a playground. He says both sides weren't getting their way so they refused to play nice.

"The governor is in that sandbox and a few of the legislative leaders and a few of the committee chairs in both the House and Senate. They need to learn how to play in the sandbox a little better," he said. Others say it isn't that simple. The makeup of the Legislature is nearly evenly divided between Republicans and DFLers. There are 101 DFLers, 99 Republicans and one Independence Party member.

Republican Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina says the bitterness of the 2004 election may have also carried over into the legislative session.

"It's a dead heat," he said. "With that kind of division, if people come here and feel that they need to come here and stick to their principals and stick to their party platform, we're not going to get anything done. What we missed this year was the transition from campaigns to governing."

It's also clear that special interests played a part in the stalemate. Democrats wanted to preserve MinnesotaCare so the working poor could still have affordable health care.

Republicans objected to any increase in income taxes or corporate taxes so Minnesota would be considered a business friendly state. For his part, Pawlenty said budget negotiations basically stalled on certain issues.

"When you get into the room with these legislators, you can just feel which ones can't bend. Which ones are afraid of these particular interest groups. And if the issue zeroes in on one of those groups, they're frozen," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty said he's gone up against several special interests, including tobacco and pharmaceutical companies, with some of his recent policy proposals.

But DFL Rep. Loren Solberg of Grand Rapids blamed Pawlenty's no-new-taxes pledge for the state's budget problems and the budget impasse. He says no one believes Pawlenty's tobacco tax is a "health impact fee." But Solberg says it was the only new revenue on the table, since Pawlenty wanted to keep his reputation as a no new taxes governor.

"And then to try to say that having a cigarette tax that's a health impact fee? It's just that type of terminology with his inability to even consider any compromising, I think brought down the shutdown of the government," he said.

In the end, lawmakers hope the public forgets about the gridlock and looks at what was achieved.

DFL Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis says the Legislature accomplished a lot over the past seven months but worries it may come with a price.

"We have cost the Legislature as an institution credibility with the public, which is already under some assault. We have to work as a body and as individual legislators to try and reconnect that trust," Thissen said.

Many lawmakers who weren't part of budget talks say they hope their constituents judge them by their records, and don't simply try to throw out all incumbents next year.