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Legislature briefs: DFL rushes tax bill toward passage

ST. PAUL - Democrats in control of the Minnesota Legislature early today proposed raising taxes to ease spending cuts to schools and health care - the largest state budget areas and toughest to negotiate.

Republicans criticized plan - an alternative to larger tax increases called for by House and Senate Democrats - and the way it was prepared. Democrats introduced the measure Thursday afternoon and plan final votes later today.

The alternative tax proposal raises nearly $1 billion largely through a new, higher income tax bracket on the wealthiest Minnesotans, an alcohol tax increase and a charge on credit card companies' interest income.

The revenue would be divided among public school education, nursing homes and long-term care facilities and hospitals. House-Senate conference committees dealing with those budget areas are working on overall finance plans. The tax revenue amounts to only a small fraction of total spending in those areas.

Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said there are "stark differences" between a House tax plan that raises $1.5 billion and a Senate bill that increases taxes by $2.2 billion.

Bakk and House Taxes Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, said Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed $1 billion in borrowing.

There is little support for Pawlenty's plan, Bakk said, so lawmakers compromised by lowering their tax increases.

"If not this, then what?" he asked.

The bill is part of the debate about closing a $4.6 billion state budget shortfall and ending the legislative session by its May 18 adjournment date.

"I think this is a defining moment of this session," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, told fellow tax negotiators at about 12:15 a.m. in front of a Capitol hearing room full of lobbyists. At 1 a.m., the conference committee voted 9-1 to send the bill to the House and Senate floors.

Republicans said that Pawlenty will not support tax hikes and the DFL proposal does not solve the budget problem.

"We'll just let the Democrats get the tax increases out of their system early," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.

Deadline nixed

Democrats and GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty exchanged blame for missing a Thursday deadline to negotiate budget bills.

The House and Senate repealed a self-imposed midnight Thursday deadline to finish negotiating finance bills that fund a number of state budget areas.

The Legislature has sent three relatively small finance bills to Pawlenty, with the biggest spending bills yet to be resolved.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich said committee deadlines helped to speed up the legislative process, but the only deadline that matters is the Legislature's May 18 constitutional adjournment.

The Legislature is ahead of schedule, but some budget negotiations have been delayed at Gov. Tim Pawlenty's request, Sertich said.

Pawlenty said he delayed a meeting about the public safety funding bill for one day so he could attend a flood-prevention meeting in Washington. Otherwise, he said, he has not sought any delays.

"It seems like a mismanagement of time," Pawlenty said about how legislators blew by their deadline.

Pawlenty said he fears a special session may be needed to finish budget work. "The risk of that happening is increasing by the hour."

Nuclear on ballot?

A Republican lawmaker said the Legislature has "dropped the ball" on nuclear energy expansion, so voters should decide whether that energy source is an option for Minnesota.

Rep. Laura Brod of New Prague proposes a constitutional amendment on the 2010 general election ballot asking voters whether state utility regulators should have authority to permit construction of a nuclear power plant.

Nuclear energy expansion has been prohibited by law for about 15 years. The state has nuclear power plants in Red Wing and Monticello.

The Senate voted last month to lift the nuclear moratorium, but the House voted to keep the ban in place.

"Because the Legislature has dropped the ball on this clean energy source and creating new jobs, this proposal would allow the people of Minnesota to decide whether or not they want more clean energy and good-paying jobs in this state," Brod said.

If Brod's proposal is not considered this year, it still could be debated during the 2010 legislative session.

Ticket deal banned

Lawmakers sent to Gov. Tim Pawlenty a bill prohibiting event ticket brokers from diverting tickets to another seller charging a higher rate.

The legislation stems from Ticketmaster's handling of tickets for an upcoming Bruce Springsteen concert in St. Paul. Ticketmaster redirected customers to another business, which charged more for tickets.

"People should at least get a shot at buying tickets at face value," said bill sponsor Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.

The House and Senate passed the bill by wide margins this week. It awaits Pawlenty's signature or veto. Coincidentally, Pawlenty is a Springsteen fan.

Web use limited

A plan to restrict high-risk sex offenders from accessing social networking Internet sites awaits Gov. Tim Pawlenty's signature.

The Legislature approved a public safety bill that prohibits high-risk offenders on intensive supervised release from using social networking Web sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, and Internet chat rooms.

The legislation also makes it illegal to use mobile phones and text messages to solicit children for sexual acts. Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said the provision expands laws against child solicitation.

Laser shining banned

Shining a hand-held laser at an airplane would be a felony under a bill lawmakers passed Thursday.

The House voted 129-3 for the proposal that makes it a felony to shine a laser into the cockpit of an airplane in flight. Proponents said that has caused emergency airplane landings in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Senators earlier approved the legislation 65-0.

Pawlenty vetoes, signs bills

Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed an economic development funding package Thursday and signed into law a transportation budget bill.

In a letter to lawmakers, the governor said he agreed with most of the $263 million economic development bill, but had to veto the entire package because he could not strike two provisions he opposed.

"For the sake of Minnesota's workers and our economy, we will get back into our conference committee and redo this bill in order to preserve the core economic development programs Minnesota needs in these difficult economic times," said DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia, chairman of the House economic development committee.

Pawlenty put his signature on the $4.3 billion transportation package. It funds Twin Cities-area and rural Minnesota transit programs and provides grants to local governments for bridge work.

Those were among the first two spending bills the Legislature sent to Pawlenty. He still is considering an environment finance bill.

State Capitol reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.