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No fun for legislators: Deficit of $1.2 billion looms as session starts

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators returned to the state Capitol yesterday for a session that promises to be little fun.

Like the kid who gets clothes for Christmas, lawmakers will deal with the necessities, not the luxuries. And, frankly, there is but one overriding necessity on their minds: balance the state budget.

People around the Capitol understand that. Usually in the days leading up to a legislative session, one group after another parades out its leaders to tell lawmakers how important one program or another is and, by the way, that program needs more money.

That is happening very little now because the state faces a deficit of at least $1.2 billion in the current budget, which lasts another year and a half, and the gap could grow as Minnesota slowly recovers from a recession. The next budget likely will be in even worse shape.

Groups such as the AFL-CIO have called for increased spending on job programs and many people support returning money to a health-care program for the poor, but by far the majority of those under the marble dome know that 2010 will be a year of cutting the budget.

"They're all difficult," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said of making cuts. "Any reductions in spending at this point are going to be controversial and many of them are going to be difficult. But it's no different than what families and taxpayers are doing across the state, tightening their belts, living on less -- in some cases living on a lot less."

Most Republicans agree with Pawlenty that taxes should not be raised, and the budget should be balanced mostly by cutting programs. Democrats who control the House and Senate disagree.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said budget woes will not stop Democrats from looking for ways to create jobs, such as providing tax credits and paying for public works projects.