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Pawlenty anxious to schedule special session this month

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to meet with legislative leaders to discuss the possibility of a special session later this month on how to pay for a $1.8 billion shift in public school payments.

But DFL leaders aren't holding out much promise for a special session so close to the Feb. 4 start of the 2010 session, Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

"Why would we do that?" Bakk asked. "Why put the Legislature on the hook for it, because he was unwilling to do a deal?"

Republican Pawlenty last spring balanced the two-year state budget himself by unalloting $2.7 billion in state spending, including deferring $1.8 billion in state aid payments to school districts. That act, however, includes no provisions to repay school districts.

Last week, a Ramsey County District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against Pawlenty unallotments of funding for a special diet program for vulnerable and disabled people, a ruling that Pawlenty plans to appeal before other groups sue over their unallotments.

"... I am recommending that the Legislature enact and I sign into law the school payment deferral already in operation for FY 2010-2011," Pawlenty wrote legislative leaders after last week's unallotment ruling. "While any agreement between us could be obtained during the regular legislative session, judicial direction may impose a greater sense of urgency requiring earlier action.

"If such circumstances arise, I am willing to consider calling a special session strictly limited to this issue if we can reach a prior agreement," Pawlenty wrote.

But DFL leaders question the urgency and Pawlenty's suggestion for a special session, a vehicle he abhors, said Bakk, who tended to a conference call with DFL leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, before talking to the Pioneer about his Democratic bid for governor.

Friday's meeting with Pawlenty will include Pogemiller and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Bakk said.

"I suggested to Larry, go and listen," Bakk said. "Why? There's not a lawsuit that we know of on that issue, the school shift. ... He needs the shift."

Putting the school deferral into law would also mean prescribing a way to pay back school districts, something that the state can't do, Bakk said. The state faces a $1.2 billion shortfall yet this biennium and a $5.4 billion deficit in the next biennium, which includes paying off the shift.

And Pawlenty is also now raising the idea of a "payment deferral" for Local Government Aid to cities, rather than unalloting it, Bakk said.

"Why would he want a special session, as adverse as he's been to that," Bakk said. "There's something that we don't know."

DFLers will listen to Pawlenty to understand his urgency in a special session, but Bakk adds that "I don't know why we'd want to own that shift."

The DFL-controlled House last spring proposed a school aid shift to balance its budget without raising taxes, while the Senate proposed budget cuts and income tax hikes to balance the budget over four years. Pawlenty vetoed both approaches.

Bakk also thought that Pawlenty can't legally appeal a temporary restraining order, that he will have to wait until a March 10 hearing to present his case.

If Pawlenty as adamant over the special session, Bakk said he suggested DFL leaders ask for something in return, such as swift action on a $1 billion public works bonding bill to put Minnesotans back to work.

Pawlenty is said to be preparing a $750 million bonding bill.

DFLers should "put something else on the plate that maybe he doesn't want to do and see what he says," Bakk said.

The issue still remains on how to pay back the school shift. "The truth is, there's no money to pay it back," Bakk said.

Swenson writes for the Bemidji Pioneer, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.