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Minnesota's deficit one of the biggest

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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton's speeches these days contain one sure-fire applause line: "We're not Wisconsin."

That is true, and Minnesotans appreciate the fact that thousands of protesters have not descended on their Capitol. But by at least one measure, Minnesota is worse than its eastern neighbor.

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Minnesota's $5 billion state budget deficit exceeds the $3.6 billion gap Wisconsin faces.

Looking beyond Wisconsin, the deficit Dayton and Minnesota lawmakers must fix this year is worse than all states but California, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Texas, a report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows.

The center, which keeps an eye on state and federal budgets, reports that 45 states expect budget shortfalls.

The report does not paint a pretty national picture: "2012 is shaping up as states' most difficult budget year on record. ... While states are anticipating significant shortfalls in the coming year, their options for addressing those shortfalls are dwindling."

Federal assistance that helped states deal with the recession for the past couple of years is drying up and tax collections are not rising fast enough to make up the difference. A stronger Republican presence in state capitols is fighting efforts to raise taxes.

Those factors are fundamental in the Minnesota budget debate, which will heat up in the next two weeks as the GOP puts meat on the bones of its budget outline.

There is no doubt the Republican plan will look far different than one Democrat Dayton has offered. Still, like in other states, it is apparent that no matter what comes out of the Legislature and Dayton's office, deep cuts in state services will be felt, on top of earlier recession-inspired budget reductions.

In most states, like Minnesota, budget battles receive relatively little notice. While Wisconsin has gained far more national publicity than any other state, its deficit is below the national average.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, says his plan to remove negotiating rights from public unions is designed to help fix his state's budget problems, but Democrats say otherwise. What Democrats see as attacks on unions have attracted most of the attention, not Wisconsin's below-average budget woes.

"This has never been about the budget," U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said. "It's been about limiting the rights and the voice of ordinary, working Americans."

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., agreed and promised to remember Wisconsin workers. "We're not going to let this go. We're going to help the people of Wisconsin fight this bill -- and the illegal power grab it took to pass it -- every step of the way."

The deep anger in Wisconsin brought thousands of protesters to the state Capitol and even more in cities around the state.

Minnesota Capitol rallies, sometimes more than one a day, usually revolve around budget issues, but with far fewer numbers than those in Madison and with much lower emotion. The year's biggest rally, which drew about 1,000, was in support of Wisconsin unions.

Those rallies and other protests could increase now that Minnesota Republicans are beginning public discussions about their budget plans, which would include deep cuts in several state spending areas.

"There are many days and weeks of budget battles ahead for both of these governors," said Phil Krinkie of the conservative Taxpayers' League of Minnesota. "Dayton's budget proposal faces fierce opposition from Republican legislators who have vowed not to raise taxes."

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