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Lawmaker debate takes citizen testimony time

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A couple hundred Minnesotans jammed into a House committee room Wednesday, many expecting to tell representatives their views on Gov. Mark Dayton's tax increase.

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Just three got the chance, with committee members taking most of the hearing debating partisan issues.

"This was a sham," said the St. Paul lawmaker who presented the Dayton tax plan to the committee.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, was furious after Wednesday's House Tax Committee hearing, telling Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, that people had taken time off work to testify in support of Democrat Dayton's tax increase on the wealthiest 5 percent of Minnesotans.

Paymar, a former legislative chairman, complained that the 75 minutes devoted to the Dayton plan was inadequate and "the public deserves more than this."

"This is the defining moment of the legislative session," Paymar said.

The meeting illustrated divisions between Democrats and Republicans. Lawmakers' loudest disputes, during time that had been set aside for the public, came over Dayton's tax increase proposal, which Republicans reject.

They also argued whether Republicans fully fund their spending.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said Republican spending bills are full of "funny money" that leaves funding gaps.

Marquart said the Dayton plan is honest, in part because he would raise the percentage of taxes the rich pay to about what lower income Minnesotans pay. "No matter who you are, you are paying roughly the same amount."

Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, said income taxes are the "least stable and least predictable" way for the state to raise money.

Democrats and Republicans could not agree on fundamental figures they use to draw up bills.

Davids said he will call more meetings following a week-long holiday break that begins next week. Those meetings will begin by examining basic numbers so lawmakers start on the same page, he said. More meetings will follow with public testimony.

On Wednesday, 42 people had pre-registered to testify, but only two school supporters and the mother of a disabled women reached the witness stand amid partisan committee debate.

"This was simply the beginning," Davids said about Dayton tax plan discussion, adding that he will regroup to make sure more public testimony is presented.

Hearing the Dayton plan is important, Davids added, because parts of it could be used when Republicans in charge of the Legislature sit down with Dayton to finish negotiating the state budget. "At some point, it will be in the mix."

That final negotiation will be tough.

"You saw today how easy it will be," Davids said, tongue in cheek.

In discussing the bill, which would raise $2.4 billion in taxes, Mary Cecconi of Parents United for Public Schools told Davids' committee that school children need more state funds than would be available under the Republican budget plan.

Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, pointed out that legislative and Dayton education plans spend about the same amount. But Cecconi said children need health and other services beyond what they receive at schools, and the GOP budget cuts those too deeply.

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