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Minnesota lawmakers OK final budget piece

Minnesota legislative leaders succeeded early Saturday to pass the final piece of the state budget.

The central issue was a controversial agriculture and environment finance bill that environmentalists said was too weak. After senators voted to change the bill, the Republican-controlled House restored the measure to its original form, sending it back to the Senate.

The Senate took three votes on the $780 million legislation before accepting the original bill. It eliminates the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens' Board, which makes pollution-related decisions. The bill also exempts copper and nickel mining from solid waste rules.

Senate Democrats disagreed with the board and mining provisions, but the Republican-controlled House voted 78-47 in support of the original bill.

After efforts to amend it to be what some senators thought would be more environmental friendly, the Senate passed it 38-29 early Saturday. That was nine hours after the same bill received just 33 votes, one short of the number needed to pass.

Republicans and bill author Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, were not happy the bill was changed after legislative leaders and the governor signed an agreement not to support amendments.

"I am disappointed in these proceedings," Tomassoni said.

Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, complained about "shenanigans" that led to the amendment. "I planned to come here to honor a deal."

Lawmakers had relatively easy jobs approving two other bills needed for the state's $42 billion budget, funding education and jobs and energy programs.

The special session was needed after Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed three of eight budget bills, with the education veto leaving a $17 billion hole in the budget.

Some of the most liberal Senate members said the agriculture-environment legislation would weaken environmental protections.

Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, urged senators to vote to return the ag-environment legislation to negotiators.

It is time to pass the legislation, Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.

"Everybody has things they want to fight for," Eken said. "There is a time for compromise and that time has come."

As an example of his willingness to compromise, Eken said that he would vote for the measure even though it did not contain a provision he wanted to allow Red River Valley communities' sewage treatment plants to meet lower pollution standards as long as North Dakota maintains lower standards.

The bill "is the best that we can do," Eken added.

The bill and others include more than $20 million to help farmers whose poultry flocks have been infected by avian flu, including state response, mental health aid to farmers and low-interest loans to those affected.

Perhaps the most politically important part of the bill is the impact failure to pass it would have had on state parks.

Dayton said his administration would quit taking state park camping reservations Monday if the bill did not pass. State parks and other Department of Natural Resources, Agriculture Department and other facilities would close on July 1 if there were no budget.

The failure of the bill "is not something that is going to be easy to negotiate," Tomassoni said. "I feel that if we don’t pass this today we are in an imminent position of laying off state employees."

One of the major complaints of Marty and other liberals was elimination of the Citizens' Board, which makes many pollution-related decisions.

The bill also includes a Dayton provision to require crops be at least 16.5 feet away from public water. The governor pushed the buffer legislation, and compromised down from requiring 50 feet of vegetation buffers around all water.

Early Saturday, lawmakers approved spending far less than the governor wanted on public works projects around the state in a year that House Republicans say they did not need such legislation.

The House passed the bonding bill 96-25 and the Senate 48-18.

The public works bill would spend $373 million, $180 million of which would be financed by bonds to be repaid from general tax revenues. Other bonds would be paid by other funds, such as from gasoline tax.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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