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Special session ag-environment bill in trouble

ST. PAUL -- Legislation funding agriculture and environmental programs may be in danger during a Friday special legislative session being called to finish writing the Minnesota state budget.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, late Thursday said he did not know if there will be enough votes to pass the measure funding a wide variety of programs ranging from state parks to helping farmers whose flocks were infected with avian flu.

"I don't know if it is going to pass," he told reporters waiting to hear what happened during a four-hour Senate Democratic meeting.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said he was not permitted to discuss what went on in the closed-door meeting, but also expressed reservations about the bill's future. "We'll find out tomorrow."

The agriculture part of the troubled bill, which usually is among the easiest for legislators to pass, is especially important this year because it contains funds for state farmers who have lost 9 million turkeys to avian flu. The bill would provide loans to affected farmers and provide them with mental health assistance.

On the environmental side, state parks will stop taking camping reservations Monday if the bill does not pass.

All state programs funded in the bill would stop on July 1 if money is not approved by then.

Other bills are expected to do fine during the session that legislative leaders said will begin at 10 a.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed a document scheduling the session at 11 p.m. Thursday.

A special session is needed because Dayton vetoed three of eight budget bills during the regular session that ended May 18. Negotiations since then have changed those bills, although House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said they look much like what passed earlier.

The three vetoed and reworked bills are those funding agriculture-environment, jobs-energy and education. Lawmakers also hope to pass bills funding public works projects, outdoors and arts projects.

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, said he and his colleagues examined the environment bill "line by line."

"Everybody is making their pitch," he said, including the governor.

Some senators said stricter environmental protection language should be in the bill, but Dayton said Thursday that the bills ready for Friday votes are the best he could get from House Republicans.

The governor asked his fellow Democrats to support three budget bills he vetoed, as well as two more funding measures. Earlier Thursday, he said that if he was convinced they would pass the bills, he would schedule the session.

"We don't have time to continue this process..." Dayton said, referring to a June 30 deadline for passing bills. "This is about stepping up to do what we must do."

Bakk said that even though his Democrats hold a majority in the Senate, he does not think the bill will get the 34 votes it needs to pass. That leaves it to Republicans to furnish enough votes, and some in the GOP have said in recent days that even though they voted for it in the regular session they probably will not on Friday.

Bakk talked about the potential that a second special session could be needed to pass the ag-environment bill.

The Senate leader said that he did not think Dayton's plea for support swayed many senators.

The four legislative leaders and Dayton met Thursday morning, and emerged saying they expected a Friday session, but were not sure.

"I really ask the 201 legislators to look beyond their particular political views..." Dayton said. "What is at stake now is the continuity of government in the state of Minnesota," the governor said.

The session will be the first held in more than a century anywhere other than the state Capitol building. It is undergoing a multi-year $300 million renovation and is closed to all but construction workers.

Two large House hearing rooms in the State Office Building, across the street from the Capitol, have been turned into House and Senate chambers, but there will be very little room for the public.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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