Column: Legislative session coming to a close soon

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 10, 2008

By Dan Sparks, State Senator

There is just over a week remaining in the 2008 legislative session. Of course, a lot can change in the final hours of a legislative session, but at this point I can honestly say this is the most ahead-of-schedule we have been since I began my time in the Senate in 2003.

Typically, the most work has always been done on the final night or two of session. That&8217;s usually a result of very entrenched budget negotiations and trying to find compromise between three separate entities: the House, Senate and governor. This year, all three bodies have worked very diligently to cooperate and compromise, and that has produced encouraging results thus far.

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This week, the Senate and House wrapped up several conference committees on almost all major policy bills of the session. Bills that change law but do not have any financial impact on the state usually are included in omnibus policy bills according to their jurisdiction.

This week, we passed omnibus public safety, transportation, higher education, K-12 education, health care and energy bills off the floor, to name just a few. All of those bills are on their way to the governor for his approval. He is constitutionally required to act on those bills within three days of receiving them.

Those bills include literally hundreds of individual bills that were passed out of committees during the course of the session.

Among the highlights is a provision that will allow Minnesota employees to use their personal sick leave benefits to care for a sick or injured parent, grandparent, spouse, or sibling. Current law requires only that sick leave policies extend to the worker and their children. This should give employees more flexibility in caring for aging parents, a growing concern as our baby-boom generation reaches retirement age.

Bills that do cost money are included in an omnibus finance bill, which is separated into different budget sections such as health care, education and government spending.

This year, that finance bill is far more concentrated on cuts rather than spending. The $1 billion budget deficit &045; which grows to $2.1 billion by 2010-2011 &8212; is a daunting challenge that has taken most of this session to tackle.

That finance bill was completed this week as well, although we are waiting to take a final vote on the bill until budget negotiations are completely finished. Although the Senate and House have agreed on what budget cuts to make, negotiations with Gov. Tim Pawlenty are ongoing.

He agrees to the same level of cuts &8212; right around $330 million &8212; but he has some different ideas about which programs should see the biggest decreases. If we are able to reach a better compromise, we want to be able to work that into the bill so we can expedite the end-of-session process of sending him a bill to sign.

The only major items left to tackle are a couple small policy bills and the tax bill. The tax bill currently is in conference committee, where members are deciding how to balance property tax relief, local requests, state tax policy reforms and the need to raise some revenue to help balance the budget.

There are a lot of moving parts in the tax bill, many of which depend on negotiations with the governor, but the committee is prepared to produce a tax bill as soon as it is needed to conclude the 2008 session.

Although we&8217;re very busy with end-of-session activity at the Capitol, we still make plenty of time for an annual springtime arrival: busloads of students from schools across the state. It seems most schools take their Minnesota history field trips toward the end of the school year. This week, I had the particular pleasure of welcoming my daughter&8217;s Ellis Middle School class, and several other schools have met with me over the past weeks as well.

Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is the state senator for District 27. His column appears every other Sunday during the legislative session.