ST. PAUL (AP) -- Legislative leaders made the first significant progress in weeks toward a session-ending budget deal in meetings Tuesday.
The deal -- which they stressed is preliminary -- would have Senate Democrats nix their hopes for raising the cigarette tax by 60 cents a pack and the House Republicans accepting up to a 4-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax.
"We're willing to cooperate and meet them more than half way toward their package and toward the dollars that are involved," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum. "We are willing to recognize the job needs to be finished and we need to get out of the legislative session with a package that will pass."
All of the new gas tax money would be used for roads and bridges, but House Speaker Steve Sviggum said the leaders discussed spending additional money on transit projects from the state's bonding bill.
But even the House leadership isn't all for the idea. Emerging from the meeting, House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty said he remains opposed to a gas tax increase, and added that the GOP caucus is split.
Another part of the deal would have the House adopt the Senate's plan to delay some payments to schools until the next budget year.
Assistant Majority Leader John Hottinger stressed that, even if the leaders reach an agreement on how to eliminate the deficit for the current budget period, there will still be plenty of tough issues left to fight about.
He and Sviggum said the bonding bill remains a key problem area. That's also linked to transportation because the Senate would partly fund a commuter rail train between St. Cloud and Minneapolis, while many House Republicans have been adamant against it.
They also must resolve differences on a bill designed to address security concerns raised after the September attacks.
"It's more progress than we've made recently," said Hottinger. "It's progress, it's significant progress.
Talks picked up when the leaders agreed to talk about areas they had in common, rather than trying to negotiate first on their differences.
The leaders had said after earlier attempts that they couldn't find even a dollar of agreement in their respective plans, but that appeared to no longer be the case Tuesday.
Sviggum offered a proposal to the Senate on Monday, and Senate leaders counter-offered. Gov. Jesse Ventura was not involved in the talks and neither were any of his aides.
Hottinger said lawmakers are negotiating under the assumption that they will pass any bills related to the deal by a veto-proof majority. That would take agreement from some Democrats in the House and some Republicans in the Senate, and leaders of all four caucuses were involved in the latest talks.
The leaders did not schedule any immediate appointment for future talks, but said they expect meetings to continue this week.
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