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Shouting ends deficit session

ST. PAUL - Shouting matches ended the 2009 Minnesota legislative session early Tuesday as lawmakers struggled to balance the state budget.

Legislators failed to reach a deal with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but the Republican governor said he will finish the job.

The normally staid Senate adjourned for the year moments after its midnight deadline with Republicans shouting to be allowed to talk about a hastily introduced tax bill.

Minutes before adjournment, Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, stood next to his desk in the front of the Senate chamber and shouted to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, near the back: "Sen. Pogemiller, can you do something about this? This is really ridiculous."

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

They were complaining that Senate President Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, refused to call on Republicans who wanted to discuss the bill that would raise taxes $1 billion and delay $1.7 billion in school payments. Pogemiller had instructed Metzen to rush through the proceedings so the bill's vote would occur before the midnight constitutional deadline for the Legislature to adjourn.

At one point, Metzen ignored the pleas of seven Republicans who stood, seeking to talk during a 16-minute debate on the bill.

"We are a disgrace to the state of Minnesota," Senjem shouted.

The last-minute flurry of activity - before adjourning until noon Feb. 4, 2010 - failed to nail down an overall state budget agreement. In the coming weeks, Pawlenty expects to chop $2.7 billion of spending to bring it in line with expected state revenues.

Those pending cuts left many questions for local government officials, school leaders and people who depend upon state-funded health programs, all whom could see state funds shrink.

Democrats wrote their last-minute tax bill to ease spending cuts Pawlenty would make.

The alcohol tax and income taxes on wealthy Minnesotans would be increased.

"It closes the deal, balances the budget and protects our priorities," said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, as the bill was rushed from a conference committee to the House floor.

Representatives started debating the bill at 11:29 p.m. Republicans said Democrats were cramming a $1 billion tax increase through the legislative process without the usual consideration given major tax bills.

"There's nothing they're saying that isn't true," House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, could be heard telling fellow Democrats seated near her in the chamber.

The GOP minority attempted to block the vote and Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, unsuccessfully tried to end the session before a vote was taken.

Over Republican objections, House Democrats breezed through floor procedures, limited debate and called for a vote before midnight. The bill passed 82-47 and was sent to the Senate, where the vote was 35-1 in a 67-person chamber. Republicans refused to vote.

"This bill was slipped together quickly," House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.

Legislators ended their work for the year at 12:01 a.m.

Neither Lenczewski nor Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, voted for the tax bill.

Pawlenty said the Democratic-controlled Legislature failed to do its job.

"The basic responsibility of the Legislature is to responsibly pass a balanced budget and the DFL failed," Pawlenty said. "They spent $34 billion when they only had $31 billion available."

Democrats, on the other hand, said that with their last-minute tax bill they actually did pass a balanced-budget proposal. They bridged the gap with higher taxes and the school payment delay, even though it was clear Pawlenty would not accept the bill.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, a tax committee negotiator, said lawmakers know Pawlenty opposes tax increases, but said the Legislature's job is to balance the budget.

"We think that it's important to mitigate the unallotment process as much as we can, and we're giving one more shot at it," Skoe said.

The 201 legislators debated a series of bills on their final day - medical marijuana, seat belts and other issues that had been pushed aside earlier as the budget took priority.

Among bills heard in the final three hours of the 2009 legislative session was one spending $397 million in the next two years on outdoors and arts projects with money from a sales tax increase voters approved last Nov. 4. Representatives backed the bill 104-30, with senators passing it 67-0.

"This is the promise to the future," Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said about habitat, parks, trails, arts, history and other areas funded in the bill.

Water clean-up work would get the most money from Murphy's bill, $151 million. Also funded are arts, $93 million; outdoor heritage fund, $88 million; and parks and trials, $65 million.

It was a historic session because lawmakers faced a record-high $6.4 billion deficit in the two-year budget that starts July 1. One-time federal aid shrunk the shortfall to $4.6 billion.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled Legislature and Republican Pawlenty agreed some spending cuts.