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Negotiators quickly agree on cutting $900 million

ST. PAUL -- The first budget-cutting bill of 2011 could be on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk this week, passed without his input.

An all-Republican House-Senate conference committee Monday night took 32 minutes, a near record for a budget bill, to unanimously approve the measure that orders Dayton to trim $100 million in state spending by June 30 and more than $800 million in the next two-year budget.

Republican leaders said last week that this bill, the first attempt to plug a $6.2 billion state budget deficit, would be their initial opportunity to negotiate with Democrat Dayton over the budget.

However, no one from the administration was among the four who testified Monday night. A Dayton spokeswoman said administration representatives were in the room and ready to testify, but never were asked.

Committee Chairwoman Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said the conference committee had issued an open invitation for people to testify, but she never heard from the administration.

"We are not trying to be confrontational," Holberg said.

Dayton Press Secretary Katharine Tinucci said the governor has not reviewed the revised bill, "but he has made it clear that any budget solution must be a complete (proposal)."

The governor unveils his budget proposal a week from today, and wanted lawmakers to also produce a full budget plan.

The House could approve the initial budget-cut bill could as early as Wednesday, with the Senate voting the next day.

Holberg said a quick vote is needed so lawmakers face a smaller deficit when they finish budget work in the spring.

"We are hoping the governor sees this as an aid to his budget as well," Senate Finance Chairwoman Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said. "I would hope he accepts this."

Among the cuts include are $487 million from state payments to local governments.

While the Legislature could make further cuts in local aid payments later in this year's session, Robling said she and others will remember the cuts they made this week and will not make matters worse for cities and counties that depend on state funds.

The bill cuts $185 million from state colleges and universities and $47 million from health-care programs for the poor and disabled. It also trims renter tax credits and kills a program that gave Minnesotans refunds for making political contributions.

The cuts basically are a continuation of those made last year, so Republican leaders say agencies and the public should not be surprised.

"We are not plowing new ground," Holberg said.

After Dayton's Feb. 15 budget plan is released, GOP leaders plan to offer their own version. The legislative session is due to end May 23 and the new budget must be in place before July 1.

Republicans say they want Minnesota's budget limited to expected tax revenues, which for the next two years would be a bit more than $32 billion. Dayton wants to increase taxes on the rich so programs are not cut as much as otherwise.

Cuts discussed in the conference committee-approved bill are cuts in the expected spending, not in actual budgets from year to year.

Among the compromises made Monday night was removing a provision from the House budget bill that would have frozen state worker pay. Robling said senators have not discussed that and they need more time before agreeing to such an action.

For the current budget, which ends June 30, the House wanted Dayton to cut $200 million, while the Senate suggested a $125 million cut. The conference committee voted to lower the figure after hearing from state finance officials that there is little more than $100 million left that can be cut.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.