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Minnesota legislative session kicks off with talks about transportation funds, health care

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ST. PAUL - Not much has changed in the nearly nine months since Minnesota lawmakers wrapped up their 2007 legislative session.

One of the issues at the fore-front of the 2008 session, which begins at noon today, is a prime example. Democrats plan to unveil a transportation funding plan that includes a higher gasoline tax and a Twin Cities-area sales tax increase.

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Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty twice vetoed transportation funding bills similar to the one Democrats plan to introduce today. He said they just raised taxes too much, and most legislative Republicans agreed and sustained his vetoes.

There are some areas of agreement, such as some health-care provisions that require little spending, with broad support. But most major issues remain contentious, with Pawlenty and Republican lawmakers on one side and Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature on the other side.

Dueling Monday news conferences drove home that point.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, both Minneapolis Democrats, talked to reporters for 30 minutes. Pogemiller did not attack Pawlenty by name. But after hinting that the governor failed to keep Minnesota on track on transportation and other issues, he said, "We can do better."

Kelliher and Pogemiller emphasized that creating new jobs would be Democrats' top priority.

"Our strength and prosperity will come from keeping jobs that we have and attracting more jobs," the speaker said.

Democrats said the first three bills they plan to consider will do just that: a constitutional amendment to dedicate money to outdoors and arts programs, a transportation funding bill and a public works funding measure. Democrats' hopes are that the three bills will create construction and other jobs throughout the state.

Pogemiller said Democrats won't even consider how to deal with an expected budget deficit until after a Feb. 28 economic update and the passage of the first three major bills.

But a leading Republican said that priority is backward. Deputy House Minority Leader Tom Emmer of Delano said Republicans' top priority is fixing the deficit, which now is $373 million and is expected to grow. Only then, he said, should lawmakers move on to other business.

Kelliher and Pogemiller said they expect their first three bills to pass by mid-March. The state constitution requires them to adjourn by May 19.

The main job this legislative session is the public works bill, which is funded by the state selling bonds. Pawlenty and Democrats agree on spending nearly $1 billion on those projects, but differ about how the money would be divided.

Because of the expected deficit, there is a good chance last year's two-year budget will need to be trimmed. Republicans expect Democrats to seek tax increases to fund state programs, but Pogemiller would not talk about that on Monday. Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClug said the governor will fight raising taxes.

While Democrats and Republicans were sniping at each other, a small organization took both sides to court on Monday.

Minneapolis Attorney Erick Kaardal announced that a four-member organization known as Citizens for Rule of Law is suing the Legislature for "per diem" payments, checks handed out to House and Senate members for expenses. Lawmakers are paid more than $31,000 a year in salary, and many also receive housing and mileage expenses.

"They tend to be difficult in the court, but they always win on the street," Kaardal said of such lawsuits.

Kaardal's suit claims per diem payments violate the law and constitutional provisions because it gives lawmakers pay raises without going through the proper legislative process.

Pogemiller said he is not worried about the suit; courts overturned two others.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns DL Newspapers. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com

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