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Senate case to stretch into June, other state political notes

ST. PAUL - Minnesota will go at least until June without a second U.S. senator.

The Minnesota Supreme Court's schedule to hear Norm Coleman's Senate election appeal sets oral arguments for June 1. In the meantime, Coleman's and Democrat Al Franken's campaigns will submit written briefs reflecting their positions on the appeal.

Coleman, who wants the state's highest court to overturn Franken's victory largely because of an absentee ballot dispute, must submit his initial arguments by April 30. Franken must respond by May 11, and then Coleman has a May 15 deadline to reply.

The court will hear the campaigns' arguments 9 a.m. June 1.

Coleman's campaign had proposed a May 15 deadline for written briefs, while Franken wanted a quicker schedule with briefs to be filed by early May.

"We are grateful that the court has issued an expedited scheduling order, and we look forward to the process continuing to move forward so that Sen.-elect Franken can be seated as quickly as possible," Franken attorney Marc Elias said.

Coleman was satisfied with the schedule.

"We're pleased that the court has granted an appropriate amount of time to prepare for this historic and consequential case to enfranchise thousands of Minnesota citizens who still wait for their voices to be heard and their votes to be counted," Coleman spokesman Tom Erickson said.

Only five of the seven jurists are expected to consider the case. Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Justice G. Barry Anderson are not taking part in the appeal because they served on the state Canvassing Board that certified vote results showing Franken won the election.

Coleman challenged that board's ruling in an election contest, which involved a seven-week trial. A three-judge panel that presided over the trial declared Franken won the election by 312 votes. Coleman is appealing that judicial panel's ruling.

Coleman has not said whether he will take the case to federal court if he loses his state appeal.

As the election litigation continues, Minnesota is represented in the Senate by Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

Education funding plans similar, but different

Minnesota education funding plans by the House, Senate and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are similar in many ways, but the amount they spend - and how they plug a deficit - differ.

A bill the House passed 85-48 Thursday night would spend $13.7 billion on public education for the next two years, the same as in the current two-year budget cycle. The Senate would cut funding 3.3 percent, while Pawlenty suggests increasing spending 1.4 percent.

To accomplish their higher spending, Pawlenty and the House plan to delay sending school districts state money. Pawlenty wants to delay $1.3 billion while the House would hold back nearly $1.8 billion.

No one, including those writing the bills, is happy with the level of funding.

"It is a bill that reflects the time we are in," House Education Finance Chairwoman Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said.

But even in hard financial times, she added, the state needs to make education a priority.

Transportation hurting

The state's general budget problems, combined with transportation-specific funding cuts, mean highway and transit projects will get less money.

Portions of a Senate transportation bill, which passed 47-18 Thursday, funded by state general tax dollars were cut 7 percent, but most transportation budgets get money from dedicated funds such as motor vehicle sales tax, gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees. All of those dedicated funds are expected to shrink due to economic problems.

"This is the best option of all the bad options that came in front of our committee," Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said.

For the most part, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman added, the cuts are minimal.

The Senate would spend $15 million less in the next budget than the current two-year cycle. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal calls for spending $4 million less.

For instance, funding for greater Minnesota transit programs would be cut 7 percent -- $3 million.

Pre-Labor Day start fails

Concerns about Minnesota's economy and the tourism industry led lawmakers to reject a proposal allowing public schools to start before Labor Day.

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, proposed allowing school districts to begin their academic year anytime before Labor Day, so long as classes are not held on the Thursday and Friday before the Labor Day weekend.

"The proposal is not just about 'ma and pa resorts,'" said Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. "This is very much about our economy and this is not the time to be messing with the economy."

Rep. Pat Garofalo, whose legislative district is in the southern Twin Cities metro, said Minnesota resorts rely on tourists from the Twin Cities.

"People up north need our citizens to visit them," he said.

Garofalo said a Bemidji resort owner convinced him to change his mind to support a post-Labor Day start.

House members rejected Norton's amendment to an education spending bill on a 71-61 vote.

Belt change in

A provision allowing law enforcement officers to stop vehicles when occupants are not wearing seat belts is part of a Senate transportation bill that passed Thursday.

Any passenger older than 15 not wearing a belt would be subject to a $25 fine, while a driver would be fined another $25 for each passenger not buckled up.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said that the current law, that does not allow police to stop vehicles for seat belt violations, sends a message that seat belt use is not important.

"We have a mandatory seat belt law," countered Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "The only thing we can't do ... is policeman can't stop you if you aren't wearing a seat belt."

Also in the measure are provisions supporting a proposed Twin Cities-to-Chicago high-speed rail line. An attempt to route the line through Rochester, home of Mayo Clinic, failed.

'Send no taxes'

Gov. Tim Pawlenty made it clear Thursday that he will veto any bills that raise taxes.

Pawlenty said the Senate DFL tax plan would result in Minnesota having two of the top 10 highest income tax brackets in the country.

"It's almost laughable on its face," Pawlenty said.

The Republican governor was equally critical of House Democrats' tax package, which raises income taxes on high earners and increases other taxes.

"This is a very troubling set of proposals," he said of the Legislature's tax bills.

The Senate bill, due for debate today, would raise income taxes $2.2 billion. A House proposal would raise a variety of taxes $1.5 billion; it likely will be debated Saturday.

Senate Tax Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, indicated that he is willing to compromise.

"A governor is very powerful," added Bakk, who is running for governor.

Bakk said several times that he would consider Pawlenty's position "if he insists."

Early ed OK'd

Representatives voted 84-47 Thursday to spare early-childhood programs from major budget cuts.

Their bill provides a 2 percent increase for many early-childhood program providers. And with more than 7,700 families on an early-childhood-care waiting list, it provides enough money to reduce that number by hundreds.

About $26 million of federal economic stimulus funds helps hold off budget cuts.

"Under ordinary circumstances, we wouldn't be celebrating a bill that holds funding flat for early childhood, but these are not ordinary times," said Rep. Nora Slawik, chairwoman of the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division. "Under the circumstances, I'm extremely pleased that we were able to maintain existing programs and take steps to improve quality early learning statewide."

The $455 million bill creates an early education director job, appointed by the governor, to coordinate pre-kindergarten and child care programs administered by the Education and Human Services departments.

State Capitol reporters Scott Wente and Don Davis wrote these stories. Wente and Davis work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Duluth Budgeteer News.