Legislators fail to solve budget; Pawlenty to unallot

Andrew Pritchard

State House and Senate budget confrerees failed to reach a compromise late Thursday night, clearing the way for Gov. Tim Pawlenty to unilaterally cut state programs and services to solve the state’s fiscal crisis.

As of press time, representatives and senators continued to negotiate, even after Senate confrerees sent their staffers home.

Earlier in the evening, sparks and words flew at the State Capitol as Pawlenty’s chief of staff, Charlie Weaver, chided legislators for being unable to reach a budget deal.

“You got three hours,” Weaver said at 9 p.m. Thursday night. “So quit screwing around, and get down to the numbers.”

The conference committee of senators and representatives tried to sculpt a compromise out of the two houses’ plans to make up a $356 million shortfall in the state’s current fiscal year budget.

The Minnesota constitution requires that lawmakers balance the budget every two years. If the Legislature cannot reach an agreement, the governor is empowered to “unallocate” state programs – a power Pawlenty has threatened for the past week to wield, amid finger-pointing by legislators.

“We have made our unallotment choices,” Weaver said. “At ten o’clock tomorrow morning we start unallotting. We don’t think this is a serious effort to solve the problem.”

At issue for lawmakers was a Senate amendment to abolish the state’s central printing and duplicating service.

Legislators also debated the state’s practice outsourcing some government services rather than paying state employees to do them.

“There’s just no evidence that privatizing services saves money,” Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis said.

Ranum said the state spent $170 million on outside contracts 10 years ago, but currently spends $850 million for those contracts with another $1 billion in projects under consideration. She criticized the House plan for not providing oversight of these contracts to protect taxpayers.

Rep. Bill Hass, R-Champlin, said no list is available of state employees qualified to do contracted projects. He said the House proposes reworking the contracting statutes from scratch.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, told Weaver that Pawlenty’s administration has not supported legislators in the budget balancing process.

“For you to suggest that the Senate is not treating this seriously is at best a mischaracterization of the Senate’s position,” Cohen said.

“We’re not blaming anybody for anything,” Weaver said. “We’re just hopeful for a resolution.”

Ranum also said the administration could have done more to help lawmakers.

“I’m sorry,” Ranum said. “But I don’t think you were ever serious.”

Weaver responded only, “Interesting.”