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Negotiations overshadow other work

ST. PAUL - Minnesota's political spotlight shone on high-level budget negotiations Thursday, but most lawmakers spent time debating far less sexy bills.

One of the key negotiators said Thursday's talks with Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not go as smoothly as they did on Wednesday.

"Extremely close yesterday, somewhat close today," is how House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, described negotiations.

Seifert said negotiators were getting down to specifics. "We tried to figure out what 'wants' to ditch," he said.

"There are a whole lot of question marks floating around," Seifert added, although he no longer was directly involved in the talks late Thursday afternoon.

The leaders mostly refused to discuss the negotiations, which need to show progress soon if lawmakers are to meet their Monday constitutional adjournment deadline.

Other lawmakers, meanwhile, debated lesser-known bills.

Representatives, for instance, argued for more than seven hours about a bill establishing an insurance pool for all Minnesota school districts. Combining all districts in one pool is supposed to lower costs for all school workers. The bill eventually passed 81-52.

While legislative leaders met with Pawlenty on budget issues, senators debated a bill that allows customers to sue their insurance companies. The measure, dropped from an earlier bill to avoid a veto, ran into enough opposition that it was set aside.

In other words, most lawmakers dealt with routine bills while the big dogs discussed how to spend more than $30 billion in the next two-year budget.

Six budget bills senators passed Wednesday sat idle Thursday while negotiators tried to find a solution all could embrace.

While they operated under a self-imposed gag order, hints received since early Thursday were mixed, at best. Many of the comments indicated an agreement is likely today or Saturday.

"I think at least we're narrowing it down and the training wheels are coming off," Seifert said.

Pawlenty and lawmakers still must agree on a tax bill and funding for state agencies, economic development, health and human services, higher education and public schools.

High-level negotiators not only were discussing overarching budget bills, but also were dealing with how to send money to help Browns Valley, which was flooded two months ago, and Rogers, after a tornado hit last fall, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

Other bills still appeared in play Thursday, including a plan to dedicate a proposed sales tax increase to the outdoors and to arts programs.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, pushed the dedicated funding bill closer to a House floor vote. The Senate already approved its version of the proposal. If the full House passes its bill, the two measures still would have to be reconciled.

Since legislators came to the Capitol in January, 2,502 bills have been introduced in the House, another 2,312 in the Senate. Lawmakers have passed and sent 84 bills to Pawlenty. The governor has signed 73 bills, vetoed nine and stricken portions of two others.

The Legislature isn't required to act on all bills introduced, but time is running out.

"I have a feeling that more than likely there's going to be a lot of bills left hanging," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, as he watched extended House debate Thursday on the school insurance pool bill.

There are other bills awaiting final passage. A House-Senate conference committee reached agreement this week on an environment bill that included some changes to all-terrain vehicle laws.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who served on the conference committee, said another measure in the bill imposing new limits on phosphorus discharge from wastewater treatment plants was delayed until next year.

The legislative chambers will work on other bills while key lawmakers continue talks on the remaining budget bills, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said.

"There is time for them to get through," she said.

Lawmakers also haven't agreed on a new plan to fund public construction projects since Pawlenty vetoed their first so-called bonding bill, but Clark said there is adequate time remaining to pass a second bill.

Another panel of House-Senate negotiators was poised Thursday to begin working on an energy bill, but it could run up against the session deadline.

"That one, they better get moving," Clark said