Conference committeenow holds reins forcurrent state budget

Libby George

The state budget for fiscal year 2003 is now in the hands of a joint conference committee after the Senate and House rejected their respective budget proposals Tuesday.

The House bill – passed Monday after more than two hours of debate – proposed $468.2 million in reductions, the same amount as Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal.

Pawlenty spokeswoman Leslie Kupchella said the governor is optimistic the compromise will look more like the House bill.

“(The budget proposal) needs to be something aggressive, given where we’re at,” Kupchella said. “He’s hoping that the Senate will compromise and it will be something he can pass.”

Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, authored the House bill and will serve as committee co-chair. He said the $384 million in cuts proposed by the Senate is simply inadequate.

“Those cuts are just not enough,” Knoblach said. “Gov. Pawlenty has already said he’ll veto the Senate bill.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman and author of the Senate budget bill Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, will co-chair the committee.

The first conference committee meeting took place Tuesday night, and members say they hope to reach a compromise by early next week.

“I would hope we could get something to the floor on Monday,” Cohen said. He added that conference committees are commonly used to reach budget agreements and estimated he has sat on more than 20 budget conference committees.

Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, expressed confidence in the committee leaders’ abilities to lead them to a compromise.

“We have two experienced, longtime chairs who have both been in major budget conference committees before,” Fredrickson said. “My hope is that we resolve the budget biennium very quickly Ö and get to work on the larger one in 2004-2005.”

The committee also has extra pressure to act quickly from Pawlenty, who will use his un-allotment powers to make budget cuts if he is not presented a bill by the end of next week. Kupchella said Pawlenty “remains hopeful that a balance can be struck.”

Knoblach said if Pawlenty does use his un-allotment powers, higher education and social services can expect even greater cuts.

“We take money from other funds, such as the state airport fund,” Knoblach said. “He wouldn’t be able to do that, so he would have to cut from other areas.”

Knoblach estimated Pawlenty would have to find approximately $180 million from other sources, mostly because Pawlenty cannot issue bonds without legislative approval.

“It could mean not going forward with road construction and could also mean additional cuts to the (University),” Knoblach said.

Cohen said Pawlenty will be influential to the committee.

“He’s going to have a very important role,” Cohen said. “Any effective governor has always been very involved in conference committees.”

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]