ST. PAUL (AP) -- A jittery Legislature convened its 2003 session Tuesday with members playing "what-if" about the approach Gov. Tim Pawlenty might take to balance a budget shortfall amounting to one of every $7 the state spends.
Pawlenty, a Republican, isn't expected to unveil any details before Friday, but that didn't stop Democrats and interest groups from pointing out the problems that could arise if he chooses various options to find $4.56 billion in savings over the next 2 1/2 years.
St. Paul Rep. Matt Entenza, the Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled House, began the day with a news conference warning that "the Republican plan" to cut aid to cities and counties could mean a weaker defense against terrorism.
While some cuts are expected, no formal plans have been announced.
Soon-to-be Republican state senators Carrie Ruud (left background) and Paul Koering (right background) shared a laugh as they chatted with others in the Senate chamber Tuesday shortly before taking the oath of office. (Dispatch Photos by Steve Kohls)
Later, members of the small but vocal group of protesters known as the Welfare Rights Committee featured rappers at an event opposing cuts that might affect the poor. Though changes to various welfare and social programs are likely, no concrete plans have surfaced.
And across the Capitol, people ranging from sign-wavers to buttonholing lobbyists were focused on protecting their own pet programs, despite the absence of any specific threat to them.
Beyond such hand-wringing, however, the opening day was mostly ceremonial, as leaders of the House and Senate called the session to order shortly after noon. The Senate adjourned within 45 minutes. The House, packed with spouses and children, continued an hour longer, adopting rules and electing officers.
In the House, Speaker Steve Sviggum has a 29-seat advantage, the strongest position since Republicans took control of the 134-member body in 1998. One seat is vacant.
In the Senate, Democratic Sen. John Hottinger of St. Peter is the chamber's first new majority leader in 22 years. He'll have narrow control with 35 Democrats to 31 Republicans and one independent expected to caucus with the Republicans.
Hottinger said he hopes the harmony exhibited on Day One won't evaporate. "We all know it's going to be difficult. But we don't believe we have to be difficult with each other," he said.
The tone will depend a lot on what Pawlenty proposes. Sviggum, from the town of Kenyon in southeastern Minnesota, notes that governors typically succeed in getting more than 90 percent of what they propose in their budgets.
Sviggum, a close friend and former colleague of Pawlenty, said he expects the House may differ with the new governor on a handful of issues such as transportation.
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