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Shouting ends deficit session

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, criticizes a tax bill that was rushed through the Minnesota House and Senate late Monday in the final minutes of the 2009 legislative session. Scott Wente/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Shouting matches ended the 2009 Minnesota legislative session early Tuesday as lawmakers struggled to balance the state budget.

Legislators failed to reach a deal with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but the Republican governor said he will finish the job.

The normally staid Senate adjourned for the year moments after its midnight deadline with Republicans shouting to be allowed to talk about a hastily introduced tax bill.

Minutes before adjournment, Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, stood next to his desk in the front of the Senate chamber and shouted to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, near the back: "Sen. Pogemiller, can you do something about this? This is really ridiculous."

"Never have I seen anything like this," added the usually quiet Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. "This is not the way Minnesota governs."

They were complaining that Senate President Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, refused to call on Republicans who wanted to discuss the bill that would raise taxes $1 billion and delay $1.7 billion in school payments. Pogemiller had instructed Metzen to rush through the proceedings so the bill's vote would occur before the midnight constitutional deadline for the Legislature to adjourn.

At one point, Metzen ignored the pleas of seven Republicans who stood, seeking to talk during a 16-minute debate on the bill.

"We are a disgrace to the state of Minnesota," Senjem shouted.

The last-minute flurry of activity - before adjourning until noon Feb. 4, 2010 - failed to nail down an overall state budget agreement. In the coming weeks, Pawlenty expects to chop $2.7 billion of spending to bring it in line with expected state revenues.

Those pending cuts left many questions for local government officials, school leaders and people who depend upon state-funded health programs, all whom could see state funds shrink.

Democrats wrote their last-minute tax bill to ease spending cuts Pawlenty would make.

The alcohol tax and income taxes on wealthy Minnesotans would be increased.

"It closes the deal, balances the budget and protects our priorities," said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, as the bill was rushed from a conference committee to the House floor.

Representatives started debating the bill at 11:29 p.m. Republicans said Democrats were cramming a $1 billion tax increase through the legislative process without the usual consideration given major tax bills.

"There's nothing they're saying that isn't true," House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, could be heard telling fellow Democrats seated near her in the chamber.

The GOP minority attempted to block the vote and Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, unsuccessfully tried to end the session before a vote was taken.

Over Republican objections, House Democrats breezed through floor procedures, limited debate and called for a vote before midnight. The bill passed 82-47 and was sent to the Senate, where the vote was 35-1 in a 67-person chamber. Republicans refused to vote.

"This bill was slipped together quickly," House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.

Legislators ended their work for the year at 12:01 a.m.

Neither Lenczewski nor Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, voted for the tax bill.

Pawlenty said the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to do its job.

"The basic responsibility of the Legislature is to responsibly pass a balanced budget and the DFL failed," Pawlenty said. "They spent $34 billion when they only had $31 billion available."

Democrats, on the other hand, said that with their last-minute tax bill they actually did pass a balanced-budget proposal. They bridged the gap with higher taxes and the school payment delay, even though it was clear Pawlenty would not accept the bill.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, a tax committee negotiator, said lawmakers know Pawlenty opposes tax increases, but said the Legislature's job is to balance the budget.

"We think that it's important to mitigate the unallotment process as much as we can, and we're giving one more shot at it," Skoe said.

The 201 legislators debated a series of bills on their final day - medical marijuana, seat belts and other issues that had been pushed aside earlier as the budget took priority.

Among bills heard in the final three hours of the 2009 legislative session was one spending $397 million in the next two years on outdoors and arts projects with money from a sales tax increase voters approved last Nov. 4. Representatives backed the bill 104-30, with senators passing it 67-0.

"This is the promise to the future," Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said about habitat, parks, trails, arts, history and other areas funded in the bill.

Water clean-up work would get the most money from Murphy's bill, $151 million. Also funded are arts, $93 million; outdoor heritage fund, $88 million; and parks and trials, $65 million.

It was a historic session because lawmakers faced a record-high $6.4 billion deficit in the two-year budget that starts July 1. One-time federal aid shrunk the shortfall to $4.6 billion.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled Legislature and Republican Pawlenty agreed some spending cuts were needed, but could not agree on how to plug the entire deficit. Democrats wanted to raise taxes; Pawlenty refused.

Legislative leaders put the best possible spin on the session's outcome Monday, even as efforts to reach a budget agreement were failing.

"Pretty remarkable" is how House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, described the session.

The good news, Kelliher said, is that "there will be no government shutdown, there will be no special session."

Both were promises Pawlenty made Thursday when he announced his planned historic use of an "unallotment" law to reduce state spending without legislative approval.

This is the first time a Minnesota governor is using unallotment to essentially write a budget. Governors occasionally have used unallotment to trim budgets when revenues fell below expectations near the end of a budget cycle.

Pawlenty has said that he likely will delay payments to schools to make up much of the remaining deficit. And it appears he will reduce state payments to local governments, perhaps by several hundred million dollars. Another expected target is health-care services.

The governor's spokesman, Brian McClung, said no timeline has been established for when Pawlenty will make decisions on specifically what to cut.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, blamed Democrats' repeated attempts to raise taxes for failure to negotiate a deal.

He complained that the DFL-led Legislature sent bills spending $34 billion in the next two years to the governor, while agreeing with Pawlenty on just $31 billion in revenue.

"Democrats sent $3 billion of red ink out to the people of Minnesota," Seifert said.

Also in the Legislature's final day:

-- The House passed 70-64 a bill allowing terminally ill patients to use marijuana to ease pain, with the Senate agreeing 38-28. "This bill is about compassion for people who are sick and dying," said bill sponsor Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

Minnesotans could not grow their own marijuana under the bill. Pawlenty says he will veto the bill.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he opposes medical marijuana, even though he someday may need it because he has multiple sclerosis. "I'm a parent first and an MS patient second."

  • The House approved 95-39 and the Senate 46-8 a bill requiring schools to establish an anti-bullying policy. Earlier references to reasons for harassment, especially the controversial reference to gay students, were removed.
  • The House passed 73-60, with the Senate following 47-19, a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to pull motorists over when someone in the vehicle is not wearing a seat belt. Under current law, drivers and passengers may be ticketed for not wearing belts, but a vehicle cannot be stopped for that reason.

Rukavina succeeded in his effort to amend the bill to allow motorists passing vehicles on two-lane roads to drive faster than the speed limit.

  • Trucks about half the size of normal ones would be allowed on county roads under a bill the House approved 122-8.
  • Both chambers passed a bill designed to eliminate problems discovered in absentee voting in last year's U.S. Senate election.

Bills not passed by both the House and Senate this year remain alive and still may receive debates next year.

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.