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Don Davis and Scott Wente, State Capitol Bureau, Published May 20 2009

Un-believable: Minnesota Legislature session limps to close

ST. PAUL – The 2009 Minnesota Legislature will be remembered as the un-session.

Unruly: As midnight arrived Monday, Republican senators were shouting to be recognized and called the end of the session a shame and a disgrace.

Uncommunicative: In the last few days of the five-month session, when leaders and the governor were supposed to work out a budget deal, they seldom even talked about meeting.

Unchanged: Talk at the beginning of the year was that a massive budget deficit gave lawmakers a chance to reform how they do things; little reform occurred.

Unsportsmanlike: For the first time in years, there was no serious talk about funding a new sports stadium.

Unacceptable: The governor refused to accept state tax increases; Democrats who control the Legislature refused to do without more taxes.

And the biggest “un,” unallot: Now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty begins looking at what he can cut from budget bills lawmakers passed, a process known as unallotment.

After nearly five months in St. Paul, lawmakers ended their session at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, a minute after the constitutional deadline, amid shouting on the House and Senate floors. The Senate, in particular, was raucous as seven Republican senators rose to talk about a $1 billion tax increase plan they just were given as time ran out. Democratic leaders refused to let them debate the measure.

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

Minnesotans are going to see something else they never have seen – a governor cutting $2.7 billion out of the state budget.

“The legislators are gone, and they are not coming back,” a determined Pawlenty said Tuesday, outlining plans for the cuts this week.

The GOP governor said he will convene a meeting of key Cabinet members and staff on Thursday to start unallotment planning.

The governor said the state’s 2010-11 budget funded by state taxes and fees will be $33.1 billion, a drop of nearly 4 percent from the current two-year budget. It will be the first time in state history that one budget is smaller than its predecessor.

But the economy leaves the state no choice, Pawlenty said.

“The sky is not going to fall,” he added. “We can get through this.”

Democrats and people who depend on state money are worried. They blame Pawlenty for the state’s economic problems because he repeatedly beat back their attempts to raise taxes to help fund schools, local governments and health care programs.

Cities are among those most concerned because Pawlenty again made it clear on Tuesday that he will cut state aid to them.

“While the governor and the legislative leaders are content to blame each other, Minnesota communities are about to be delivered a body blow in the form of huge property taxes and cuts to public safety, libraries and other critical services,” said Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden. “Minnesota is now headed toward the unallotment cliff.”

Pawlenty said he hopes to let Minnesotans know within weeks what he will cut, but only after his staff talks to key legislators about their wishes. He plans to at least release an outline of the cuts by the time the next budget begins on July 1.

Lawmakers left the Capitol frustrated with the legislative process.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said lawmakers had a chance this year to make major budget reforms, but Democrats who control the Legislature “squandered four or five months of time.”

“It’s a messy session, but it was a messy budget,” Seifert said as lawmakers left the Capitol early Tuesday.

Senate Tax Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Democratic leaders ordered him to draw up the tax increase five hours before the constitutional adjournment deadline. It would provide proof that Democrats tried to balance the budget.

“There had not been an actual balanced budget put on the governor’s desk,” Bakk said.

The bill would have raised taxes $1 billion and delayed $1.7 billion in school payments, but Pawlenty expects to veto it as soon as it arrives in his office.

Republicans complained about Democratic arrogance for ramming the tax bill through the House in 30 minutes and the Senate in about half that time. Generally, such a major bill would receive hours-long debate.

“We acknowledge that this is one of the most difficult sessions,” House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said moments after the rough ending.

“In the end, the chasm was just a little too wide,” she said of differences between Democrats and Pawlenty.

Davis and Wente work for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. They can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com and swente@forumcomm.com