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Budget talks continue

ST. PAUL -- The focus of state budget discussions has shifted from the Minnesota Legislature's two second-floor Capitol chambers to the governor's office one floor below, where legislative leaders and governor met again this morning after a series of Wednesday meetings made progress toward a Monday adjournment.

Six budget bills the Minnesota Senate passed Wednesday to replace finance packages Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed are being scrapped as top lawmakers and the governor work privately toward agreement on key spending areas.

The Legislature faces a Monday constitutional adjournment deadline with most of what could be a $35 billion state budget remaining unfinished.

Pawlenty met with House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller four times Wednesday, ending a several-hours-long negotiating session shortly before midnight. The Minneapolis Democrats were tight-lipped about the negotiations when they left for the night.

"It was a very productive meeting," Kelliher said.

Earlier Wednesday, senators rushed to approve six budget packages after Pawlenty rejected earlier versions of the bills. Leaders of the DFL-controlled Legislature planned to send the bills through the House and on to Pawlenty by midnight, leaving enough time to try again if the Republican governor rejected the second batch.

But by this morning, Senators were ready to retract those bills as high-level negotiations were expected to continue today.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said: "I think at least we're narrowing it down and the training wheels are coming off."

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.

It's unlikely either legislative chamber will vote on another major budget bill until Pawlenty and key lawmakers reach an overall agreement on the size of the next two-year state budget, said Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. This morning, Friday looked like the earliest a budget vote would happen.

Legislative leaders said they were optimistic lawmakers will finish their work on time, with Seifert saying they could wrap up before Monday.

"The tone and tenor is good," Senjem said.

Talking with reporters after leaving the governor's office early this morning, Seifert and Senjem expressed more optimism about the status of negotiations than did Kelliher and Pogemiller.

"They have some cantankerous chairmen to deal where Dave and I don't," Seifert said, referring to Democratic lawmakers who control budget committees but are not involved in the high-level negotiations.