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Paynesville Press - May 5, 2004

Legislators attempt to finish session

By Sarah Arnquist

The Minnesota Legislature will be working long into the night for the next few weeks to resolve several controversial issues and deeply divided bills if it wants to convene on schedule by midnight on Monday, May 17.

Whether to fund a new sports stadium, balance the budget through taxes or gambling, extend the light rail, add the gay marriage question to the November ballot, lower the legal drunken driving limit, and increase the penalties for sex offenders are all debates still being waged at the legislature.

Staunch partisan politics have paralyzed progress on many of these issues. The best example may be the Senate Education Committee's strict party-line vote last week to recommend to the Senate not confirm the appointment of Cheri Pierson Yecke to head the Department of Education.

The DFL-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House do not agree on the best method to balance the $160 million dollar deficit. The House wants to raise revenue through new nontribal casinos such as Racino, a combined racetrack and casino at Canterbury Downs. The Senate rejects the casino proposal and wants to close corporate tax loopholes to raise revenue.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) said he would like to cooperate to resolve the issues. "We are willing to work daily until an agreement is reached as long as all meetings take place in public conference committees," Johnson wrote in an April letter to House Speaker Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon).

The Senate passed an omnibus tax bill and the House voted to approve its version of the state bonding bill last week. The Senate will draft its version of the bonding bill this week, and the House will battle over the stadium issue. These bills and others, such as the omnibus education bills in both houses, then go to conference committees. One point of difficulty is that the Senate has passed one omnibus bill while the House has divided theirs among spending areas.

A capital investment bill, or bonding bill, is due this year from the legislature. These are capital projects funded by the state sale of bonds.

But the governor, House and Senate all seem to have different ideas of what projects should be included. The Senate hopes to vote on its package this week.

The House passed a $682.7 million bonding bill last week, surprising many with its large variances from the governor's bonding recommendation. The House bonding package is about $75 million less than the governor's. It allots about $70 million more to higher education than the governor and also funds $37.5 for the Northstar commuter rail system from Minneapolis to Big Lake.

The House bill includes $300,000 for the Lake Koronis Recreational Trail. This money would come as a grant through Stearns County.

The language in the House bill is broad, not specifying if the money would go to furthering the trail around the lake or to linking the trail to the Glacial Lakes State Trail, which runs in the abandoned railroad bed a couple miles north of Paynesville. The exact wording in the House bill says the money is for "land acquisition, engineering, and construction of trail connections on the Lake Koronis Trail."

This funding would still need to be included in the Senate bill, or the bill produced by a conference committee, and signed by the governor. Two years ago, funding for the trail was also included in the bonding bill until Gov. Jessie Ventura line-vetoed it from the package.

Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) and Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) voted for the bonding bill in the House.

Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport) voted against the bonding package. "I do not believe that using a credit card to pay for things now is the answer," Heidgerken said. "Further mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren at the state level should be looked at very carefully."

End of the Session
Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) is optimistic that the legislature will convene on time. She hopes conference committees begin meeting this week. "It always looks like this around the end, but we seem to get things done," she said.

As of Monday, neither Senate nor House members had been appointed to sit on the committees. The conference committees take the final bills from both floors and make changes to combine them into a single bill. That final bill then goes back to each floor to be voted on.

If approved, each bill goes to the governor's desk for approval. The governor can sign the bill into law; veto the bill; line-veto individual items on appropriations bills; or do nothing. The governor also can "pocket veto" any bill given to him during the last three days of the session by not acting on it within 14 days after the legislature adjourns. A two-thirds vote in each chamber is needed to override a veto, but only while it is still in session.

By the end of April, Gov. Tim Pawlenty had signed 38 bills into law from this session.

Editor's Note: Arnquist is a senior journalism major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is covering the 2004 legislative session for the Paynesville Press.)

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