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Lawmakers struggle to end session

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501

Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

ST. PAUL - Legislative negotiators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty reached agreement on health-care reform and state budget-balancing packages late Saturday, but lawmakers were expected to miss a self-imposed deadline to finish their work as tax negotiations continued into early this morning.

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House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said late Saturday that lawmakers planned to vote on the health bill early this morning before breaking for several hours. They then would return later in the day to finish their work for the year.

It will take several hours for legislative staff to prepare a compromise tax bill for final votes, Seifert said, so the Legislature would not be able to complete its work by 7 a.m. today, lawmakers' targeted deadline. The 2008 Legislature must adjourn by Monday, but cannot pass bills on the final day.

As darkness fell Saturday, the pieces began to fall into place. Health care reform was the first big area where negotiators found compromise, after days of saying they were close in all unresolved areas.

But the biggest sticking point to an overall deal was property tax relief, as it has been for days.

Rep. Dean Simpson of Perham, the top House Taxes Committee Republican, said that even though Democrats late in the week agreed to Pawlenty's wish to implement a limit on how much property taxes can increase, the two sides still disagreed Saturday night about how long that tax cap should remain on the books. Pawlenty wanted a three-year cap, while Democrats favored a one-year bill.

They did, however, agree on keeping local government property taxes from rising more than 3.9 percent.

Late Saturday, Seifert said the length of a cap still was the key point of contention in tax bill negotiations, though other tax issues also were still being debated.

Details were being worked out about how to send more state money to local governments and how to increase property tax refunds for at least some Minnesotans.

There also was talk that lawmakers could resurrect a state borrowing plan in the session's final hours and try to convince Pawlenty not to veto a transportation policy bill that would place restrictions on new teen drivers.

"We've got so many balls in the air right now, it's hard to juggle them all," Seifert said of issues still in play with just hours remaining for work to be done.

The health-reform agreement would broaden eligibility for both private and state-subsidized health insurance programs, improve the availability of health care information and begin caring for chronic disease patients differently.

"Given these are tough economic times, we got a little bit of expansion and quite a bit of cost containment," Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the health-care agreement addresses health care cost, quality and access - all of which Pawlenty earlier this year said were needed in a health care reform package.

"This has been something that has seen its share of hurdles and ups and downs, but we think the work product represents some good bipartisan work," McClung said.

The tentative agreement would provide health insurance for 12,000 more Minnesotans. It expands eligibly in the state MinnesotaCare insurance program for 7,000 people. An additional 5,000 who meet certain criteria could seek tax credits to buy private insurance.

Huntley said that under the compromise plan, health-care premiums would be 12 percent lower in 2015 than without the bill. Under the original legislative plan, premiums would have been 20 percent lower, he added.

While negotiators reached a compromise in health care, its fate was tied to whether a deal is reached on other issues.

"The progress that we've made in the area of health care reform is part of the overall package and the overall puzzle that we are assembling here in the final days of the legislative session," McClung said Saturday evening.

Today is the last day lawmakers can pass bills, although they could meet in ceremonial session Monday. However, Democratic legislative leaders plan to fly around the state Monday, making stops in many cities, including Duluth, Bemidji and Moorhead.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, on Friday said Pawlenty and legislative leaders nearly had reached a deal to wrap up the session. On Saturday, such optimism was not as common. Committee meetings and full meetings of the House and Senate were delayed for hours while lawmakers awaited word from negotiations.

"We're coming down the final stretch," Pawlenty said Saturday afternoon, but admitted "there are some significant details that have to reconciled" in every major remaining issue.

For most of the day, there appeared no rush to work, even though lawmakers wanted to finish early Sunday.

For instance, the House passed a resolution honoring Norwegian constitution day.

Many legislators spent time in the sun along the Capitol mall, eating at food stands and listening to music to celebrate the state's 150th birthday.

For a time Saturday, Pawlenty was signing autographs instead of bills, and was posing with legislative leaders instead of negotiating with them.

Most legislators and Pawlenty mingled with Capitol mall visitors. They watched vintage airplanes fly over the Capitol dome and posed for pictures. Senators, awaiting a group photograph on the Capitol steps, chanted "sine die," the term for ending of the two-year legislative session.

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

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