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Paynesville Press - May 26, 2004

Session ends without major agreements

By Sarah Arnquist

The Minnesota Legislature adjourned the 2004 Legislative session in the early morning on Sunday, May 16, having settled few of the most controversial issues.

The governor, House, and Senate were unable to settle major budget disputes and act on other major initiatives, such as a bonding bill, tougher sex offender laws, whether to allow more gambling casinos, settling the Twins and Vikings stadium disputes, reforming health care, or toughening laws for methamphetamine dealing.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty resolved the $160 million deficit on his own after the legislative session closed by cutting $110 million from health care access funds and $17 million from state agency administrations. He also expects to save $26 million in interest by freezing existing and future bond projects and expects to save $7 million by strengthening corporate tax compliance efforts.

The few issues where the House and Senate were able to reach agreement and send to the governor for approval include setting high school graduation standards, lowering the drunken driving limit to .08 percent, and allowing a morning dove hunting season.

DFL leaders, who controlled the Senate, remained steadfast to their priorities at the 2004 legislative session, according to Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar), who completed his first session as the Senate Majority Leader. Johnson said what did not pass in the session may be just as important as what did pass.

There has been talk of a special session, but the possibility looks slim. The governor said he is not ready to call a special session at this time. The only way a special session would be called is if legislators agree beforehand.

Passing a bonding bill would surely be a priority of a special session. A bonding bill would allow the state to borrow money for major construction projects that could create thousands of jobs.

"All major players want a bonding bill and want it badly," Johnson said. "Because of this, I feel we will have a special session. The governor has already taken care of the $160 million deficit, but with a session the House and Senate differences could be worked out."

The House bonding bill, which passed the House, included $365,000 for the Lake Koronis Recreational Trail in Paynesville. The Senate proposal, which did not pass, included $900,000 for finishing the Glacial Lakes State Trail.

A major issue of contention between the Republican-controlled House and DFL-controlled Senate was the manner to resolve the budget. The House wanted money from gambling; the Senate wanted to tighten corporate tax loopholes.

"The session's greatest failure is in taking care of the deficit," said Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport). "We must remember we are spending $1.5 million more each day than we are taking in. As a former business owner, I know this is acting fiscally irresponsible."

Heidgerken is pleased that his bill giving the Koronis Manor in Paynesville designation as metro was included and passed in a joint House-Senate conference committee late Saturday night. The bill should mean thousands of dollars in additional reimbursement each year for Stearns County nursing homes, including the Koronis Manor.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) was disappointed with the DFL leadership in the Senate. She said that the process of lumping several bills together in five omnibus packages made it difficult to establish conference committees to work out the differences between Senate and House bills.

"Toward the end we were pushing through bills that could have been dealt with before," Fischbach said. "I was a little disappointed that those things were going on at the end."

The DFL leadership in the Senate didn't want to deal with these bills in the beginning of the session, said Fischbach.

Fischbach called her hospital moratorium bill that passed a success. The bill changes the way hospitals in the state can bypass a moratorium to build. The issue arose in the recent years when Allina Healthcare Inc. wanted to build another hospital in Sartell.

The bill requires the Minnesota Department of Health to study the potential effects of a new hospital before the legislature can vote on it. "It's going to make it a better process for making these exceptions for hospitals to build," Fischbach said.

If the governor does call a special session, Fischbach would like to see more health and human service issues addressed and a bonding bill passed, especially since money for the Lake Koronis Recreational Trail was included in both the House and Senate bonding proposals.

"I get the feeling that the bonding bill would be one of the major things we deal with in a special session," she said.

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

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