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Negotiations yield some results

ST. PAUL - Negotiators got down to business on priority legislation Thursday as Minnesota lawmakers look to go home for the year this weekend.

The most progress came after Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders spent much of Thursday afternoon and evening negotiating behind closed doors. They emerged after 11 p.m. having reached agreement on two key issues.

The Republican governor and top lawmakers agreed to split $405 million in available funds between new spending and tax relief. Legislative negotiators still must work out details in the next two days.

"It's a very good product for the people of Minnesota," Pawlenty said.

Under the agreement, the Legislature will decide how to spend $202.5 million in surplus revenue. Lawmakers likely will provide more money to keep sex offenders in state hospitals, fund veterans initiatives and provide for avian flu preparation.

The remaining $202.5 million will be directed to tax relief, the leaders said. There are competing proposals for how to use that money, including one-time property tax rebate checks favored by House Republicans and additional local government aid payments preferred by Senate Democrats. A House-Senate tax committee is charged with settling those differences.

"We all needed to allow each other to win somewhat to have a compromise solution," Pawlenty said.

The agreement, though merely a framework for more detailed negotiations, was considered necessary in order for progress on other issues.

"For every dollar of spending in the budget there will be one dollar of relief to the taxpayers of Minnesota," Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said.

"The result is one that is balanced," added House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

Work continued on other fronts. One of the roughest edges legislators showed came in a House-Senate conference committee trying to finish a proposal to fund public works construction projects around the state. Negotiators traded barbs during an afternoon meeting but returned later to swap offers on the public works funding package, known as the bonding bill.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said a proposal offered Thursday night by House Republican negotiators showed there was a desire to make progress. Langseth is the lead Senate negotiator.

"This is a sincere, reasonable approach tonight," added Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul. He earlier had told fellow committee members to set aside "personality stuff" and get work done.

The public works construction bill - to be funded by the state selling bonds - is the top priority of the 2006 legislative session. Just two days are left to negotiate the final deal.

Before legislators can adjourn for the year, they can expect marathon sessions today and Saturday. The Saturday session likely will extend to 7 a.m. Sunday as they rush to finish work.

The state Constitution sets Monday as the final day the Legislature can meet.

However, it also does not allow lawmakers to pass bills on the final day and legislative leaders say they will not meet on Sunday. That makes 7 a.m. Sunday legislators' practical deadline.

Bumping up on the practical adjournment deadline has become common. Senate Secretary Patrick Flahaven said the late-night finishes often have been caused by budget problems that have been felt in recent years.

This year's expected last-minute finish is fueled in part by a close party division in the House, where Republicans hold a two-vote margin. That narrow edge means Republicans are leery about bringing up bills that Democrats could try to amend.

In the next two days, work will continue on a variety of issues legislators feel are important. They include:

• Funding the public works construction bill. Legislators expect to pass a bill funding $1 billion worth of projects, with $949 million repaid by general tax money. While negotiators agree on how much to spend, they have not decided what projects will be funded.

• Deciding if voters will be given a chance to vote on amending the Constitution to dedicate some of the state sales tax to outdoor, clean water and arts programs. Republicans prefer to take money out of existing tax revenue, while most Democrats want to raise the tax.

•Making a decision about whether to fund Twins and Gophers stadiums. It appeared on Thursday that the Vikings' request for a stadium would not make the cut this year.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.