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Dashed Hopes Under the Dome
by Michael Khoo
April 19, 2000
Part of MPR's Session 2000 coverage
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Had the legislative session gone according to plan, lawmakers would have wrapped up their work Wednesday and returned home to kick off their re-election campaigns. Instead, both houses will return next week to pick up where they left off - deadlocked over budget talks.

THE MINNESOTA HOUSE AND SENATE have adjourned for Passover and the Easter Weekend without progress on budget negotiations. The two sides have been divided for weeks over how much money is available for tax cuts and ongoing spending.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe lays the blame squarely at the feet of House Republicans. "Their strategy is simple," he says. "Drag this out. Come back next week. Run out the legislative days. Exhaust the time, nothing will get done. There will be no rebate. There will be no permanent income tax cut. There will be no permanent property tax relief..."

The underlying point of contention hasn't changed much despite weeks of rhetoric and dueling press conferences. Senate DFLers and Governor Ventura say House Republicans should stick to budget numbers prepared by the state finance department. That means permanent tax cuts and ongoing spending must be held to $549 million. Moe says anything above that is "phony money." GOP leaders disagree. "It is not phony money," says Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum. "It is the taxpayers' money. That's what we're fighting for."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum says a string of budget surpluses indicates the $549 million figure is too low. Moreover, he says the latest offer from the GOP takes incorporates that number as its base and adds only ongoing tobacco revenues, which he says should be fair game to pay for tax cuts.

"The philosophical difference is whose money is it?" says Sviggum. "It's the people's money. We're fighting to get it back to them. It is not Roger Moe's money to give who they want to give it to. It's the people's money and it ought be given back to them in the form of a permanent tax cut."

Sviggum didn't divulge the details of his offer, but Senator Moe was dismissive. He said anything above $549 million was unacceptable and could lead to budget shortfalls in the future. "They have to submit an honest budget," says Moe. "Quit playing politics with the numbers, quit playing politics with the state budget so that we can in fact have a balanced program and move forward where Minnesotans want us to move."

With the Easter deadline looming and no agreement in sight, lawmakers now face a constitutional limit on the number of days they can hold floor sessions to pass bills. Only nine remain between now and May 22nd.

"We're just trying to make sure that work doesn't keep expanding and expanding and expanding government work to fill the time available," says Sviggum, who thinks when the House returns next week, Republicans will be prepared to run down the clock and force either an agreement or a do-nothing session.

Governor Ventura sides with the Democrats on the size of the state budget, but he's been largely absent from the ongoing debate. Legislators have met with his finance commissioner, but spokesman John Wodele says there's no need for Ventura's direct involvement until all sides accept the department's budget projection. "What is there to do if they won't agree to the number?" asks Wodele. "If they want to do a package that will put our budget out of balance, we're just not interested in that. The Senate's not interested in that. So, fundamentally, they have to agree on the basics before you can go anywhere."

Wodele says ending the session without resolving the budget debate would be irresponsible. He says at a minimum, Ventura will expect a bill on capital investments which is traditionally the focus of even-year sessions.