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Pawlenty prepares for budget woes

ST. PAUL -- In a sign that state budget negotiations aren't going well, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is looking at ways to fix a budget deficit if he and legislative leaders cannot reach an agreement by the Legislature's May 19 adjournment date.

ST. PAUL -- In a sign that state budget negotiations aren't going well, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is looking at ways to fix a budget deficit if he and legislative leaders cannot reach an agreement by the Legislature's May 19 adjournment date.

On Thursday, for the first time in public, the Republican governor said he is considering options in case negotiations fail. He told reporters that he is looking at how he could cut state programs if no deal is reached. And he said he already is looking at dates when he could call lawmakers back into a special session to deal with the deficit.

Meanwhile, high-level talks between Pawlenty and Democrats who control the Legislature continued with little or no progress reported.

Pawlenty also said a traffic safety bill still does not meet his approval, despite legislative efforts to drop provisions he does not like. And he appeared likely to veto a bill to raise the minimum wage.

As conflicts between Pawlenty and legislative leaders escalated, he left for fishing opener activities in Breezy Point and Pequot Lakes, Minn., where he plans to spend today and Saturday.

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Among Pawlenty's options is to cut spending on his own -- known as unallotment -- if he and lawmakers can't agree on a budget fix.

But by himself, he can't use other options lawmakers are discussing, such as using surplus special funds to balance the budget. Nor can he increase tax collections on multi-national corporations, something legislators want to use as a major part of their budget-balancing scheme.

Pawlenty said negotiations have been civil and constructive, but he expressed some doubt about Democratic leaders' intentions.

"They will put a couple of stink bombs" in bills they pass, Pawlenty said.

Democratic leaders said their staff and the governor's staff continued to work out budget details throughout Thursday.

Two bills vetoed

Pawlenty on Thursday vetoed a bill restricting release of health care debt information and a resolution supporting federal legislation to make it easier to unionize workers.

The health care data bill did not adequately define terms used in the measure, the governor said.

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Bill supporters said the bill would restrict health-care providers from disclosing health-care-related financial information to other entities in an effort to prevent the refusal delivering medical services.

"We shouldn't send patients into a financial death spiral simply because they get sick," Attorney General Lori Swanson said.

But Pawlenty said the vagueness of the bill would lead to confusion, which could mean higher health-care costs.

Pawlenty's other veto came on a resolution encouraging Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers who want to form a union more protection from employer interference.

The GOP governor said the issue has no direct bearing on Minnesota and that it is "one-sided legislation that seeks to fundamentally alter more than 60 years of federal labor law."

Ag bill to governor

The governor soon will decide whether to sign a bill increasing the amount of biodiesel used in Minnesota.

Senators approved a bill doing that 64-0 and the House followed late Wednesday on a 123-2 vote. It would raise the amount of biodiesel -- usually made from soybean oil -- from today's 2 percent mandate to 20 percent by 2015

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GOP bar hours

Beer taps, wine corkscrews and martini shakers should get an extra workout during the Republican National Convention, thanks to state legislation that pushes bar closing time out by two hours.

The Minnesota Legislature approved a compromise bill Thursday that would let local governments in the seven-county Twin Cities area allow liquor dispensing until 4 a.m. during the convention's run.

The current cutoff time for bars is 2 a.m.

From Aug. 31 to Sept. 5, bars could stay open the extra time if their cities give the OK. The local governments would be allowed to charge special permit fees of up to $2,500.

The Senate approved the bill on a 42-20 vote, and the House fell in line with a 112-22 vote, forwarding the bill to Pawlenty.

Pawlenty, a prominent supporter of presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, said he won't get in the way.

"No good happens after bar closing time," he said. "But for one week, for this purpose, I think it's fine."

State sport

Minnesota Rep. Bud Heidgerken thinks legislative education negotiators had an ulterior motive to make hockey the state sport.

"This looks like a political puck to get the governor's support," the Freeport Republican said of Pawlenty, an avid hockey fan.

"Every sport is important," said Heidgerken, a longtime wrestling coach.

The provision was included in an education policy bill bound for Pawlenty's desk.

The House passed the bill 82-49 after senators backed it earlier in the day 45-20. Pawlenty said Thursday he does not like some parts of the bill, hinting he may veto it, but he did not address the hockey issue.

During House debate, hockey talk far outweighed other provisions in the bill, which was written in recent days by House and Senate negotiators who put the two chambers' bills together.

The bill adds information to existing school report cards already produced by the state. It also requires students to attend school until they turn 18 or graduate. And it requires one semester of physical education before a student can graduate.

Amendments

Minnesota voters could have two chances this fall to set new rules for their state lawmakers -- from when they meet to what they're paid.

A pair of proposed constitutional amendments are making their way to the November ballot. Both cleared the House Rules Committee this week and are expected to face votes before the 2008 session adjourns.

One would empower the Legislature to call themselves into special sessions -- a decision now reserved for the governor.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, argued it would make Minnesota's Legislature more nimble when responding to emergencies, such as last summer's bridge collapse.

His bill would restrict legislative-called special sessions to seven days. It would take the consent of a majority of the Legislature or an agreement by legislative leaders to call one. The governor would retain the right to call them, as well.

Thirty-three states now allow their legislatures to convene at their own call outside of normal sessions.

"It's not overused in a single state," Carlson said. "In some states, it's never been used."

But opponents said they fear it would lead to a cycle of special sessions, pushing Minnesota's part-time lawmakers into a more full-time role.

The second ballot measure would establish an appointed citizens council that would set pay for legislators. That would take salary decisions away from lawmakers.

No legislators would be on the new panel, which would be comprised of bipartisan appointees of the governor and chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said the amendment doesn't presume that pay will go up or down. Instead, he said it removes the appearance of a conflict of interest that comes with lawmakers deciding how much they should make.

Pay raises have been a politically tender subject for Minnesota legislators. Standard House and Senate salaries have been stuck at $31,140 since 1999, although leaders get an extra stipend. The Minnesota Constitution now says pay raises can't take effect until after the election when they are passed into law.

Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, said lawmaker pay needs serious attention to keep the institution from becoming too elite.

"We are not providing enough compensation to keep young families represented in the Legislature," he said.

In the recent past, lawmakers have turned to increases in daily expense allowances they can claim while in session instead of raising the legislative salary.

Constitutional questions appear on the ballot if the House and Senate approve identical language. The governor doesn't act on them.

One ballot initiative is already before voters. It would raise the sales tax and dedicate proceeds to tje environment and arts.

Bridge victims pay

A close-knit coalition of Minneapolis bridge collapse victims -- some in wheelchairs and others still wearing casts -- looked on Thursday as Pawlenty signed a $38 million package to compensate them for their injuries and losses.

The ceremony capped their nine-month fight for state help recovering from the Aug. 1 failure of the Interstate 35W bridge, which hurt 145 people and killed 13.

Victims who take a settlement must give up the right to sue the state and other units of government in Minnesota, but they don't waive the right to sue others.

The state isn't admitting any liability.

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