As state leaders grapple with a historic deficit, the great debate at the Capitol is coming down to an jarring collision between education and health care -- two hungry giants of the state budget that together devour 70 percent of its spending.

Faced with a Sophie's Choice over which of their top priorities to sacrifice, DFLers, to the astonishment of some, are recommending flat funding for schools or even a significant cut in order to preserve some safety net for the old, poor and disabled.

Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has made his choice clear, dangling a slight increase to education while slicing deeply into health care.

The result has Democrats fighting and coming under friendly fire.

Behind closed doors at a recent caucus meeting, Rep. Mindy Greiling, the K-12 Finance Division chairwoman, bluntly informed longtime colleague Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the House's leading voice on health care, that she would not carry a bill with outright cuts to education.

"That's when the shrieking started," said Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

When the caucus was over, the House recommended a zero increase to K-12, cuts to health care and $1.5 billion in tax increases. It was the sort of all-spinach budget plan DFLers say is needed in contrast to Pawlenty's approach, which they say takes an easy path but paves the way to even deeper future debt.

Within hours, the president of the state teachers' union, Tom Dooher, blasted the House plan as hurtful to schools and days later denounced it openly to a meeting of 700 union members. The union is one of the most influential parts of the DFL coalition and a reliable generator of both campaign foot soldiers and contributions.

Outraged, Greiling called Dooher in for a meeting. "There was yelling," she said. And despite smiles and handshakes at the end, a lingering sense emerged that the DFLers' call for "shared sacrifice" was going to be a tough sell.

"His remarks show me he's still in la-la land as far as the budget is concerned," Greiling said. She noted wryly that even as union officials were asking for more on classrooms, they were also working the levers for a statewide teacher health plan and help on pension benefits.

"How can they ask for better health care for themselves when they know other people are going to lose it entirely if we give in?" she said.

The Senate has taken an even stricter approach, forgoing the accounting shifts that eased House and gubernatorial proposals and opting for a $2 billion tax increase and 7 percent budget cuts that would affect every government service -- including schools.

For Sen. Linda Berglin, a leading expert on health care and one of the most powerful figures in the Senate, the choice is simple.

"If there's a classroom in Minnesota that has five or six more kids for a while," she said, "nobody's going to die."

In her corner is another Senate powerhouse: Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who spent years fighting for education interests as chair of the education committee.

Are DFLers turning on their old friends in education? "No," Pogemiller said, sitting in the antique oak rocker in his corner office. "But they can't keep taking at the expense of everyone else. Shared sacrifice means just that. We're doing what's fair to everyone."

'They're all bad'

Dooher of the teachers' union said the Senate's cuts would result in thousands of teacher layoffs across the state.

Not that he's any happier with Pawlenty's proposal. Pawlenty would direct $424 million in federal stimulus funds to education, but in the form of merit pay, with other funds going only to schools that improved their educational outcomes.

"They're all bad," Dooher said of the budget plans. "We understand the predicament the state is in, but our job is to fight for education and we're not going to settle for zero."

To that end, the union, Education Minnesota, earlier this year launched a TV ad blitz that has DFLers gritting their teeth -- wave after wave of commercials featuring Dooher, smiling schoolchildren and somber parents attesting to the value of schools and the need for more money.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said that Pawlenty's budget is a cynical attempt to turn the state's fiscal crisis into a wedge issue.

"To drive a wedge between Minnesotans on two such vital issues is belittling to them," Sertich said. "It's telling them they can't expect both good education and good health care. I don't accept that."

Brian McClung, Pawlenty's spokesman, said DFLers are unrealistic if they believe the state can raise taxes high enough to accommodate its ever-increasing spending.

"The governor is making a choice here," McClung said. "They [DFLers] get to make a choice too. If they choose a health care welfare state over education, they need to defend it."

Painful choice

Jim Mulder, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said that whether it's driven by politics, policy or both, Pawlenty's budget may have put DFLers in an untenable position.

"If you look at Pawlenty's budget from a numbers rationale, it's terrible," he said. "But politically? It's kind of brilliant. He controls the playing field. Right now they're being positioned to raise taxes and cut schools. Meanwhile, he's proposing no taxes and more for schools. How do they [DFLers] sell that?"

The idea that everyone should share in the pain, Mulder said, "is an intellectual argument. Come election time, the Republicans are going to pull out the emotional argument to every teacher and parent in every lit piece. 'You were sold out by the Democrats.'

"That's why when you play on someone else's field," Mulder said, "you usually lose."

But at Minneapolis' NorthPoint Wellness Center, the difficulty of choosing between core services is apparent. For more than four decades, thousands from the city's North and Near North sides have come in search of help to the center, which offers a complex web of health, education and social services.

"It's like asking which hand do you want me to cut off," said Stella Whitney-West, the CEO of NorthPoint. "These are our neighbors and friends that we treat every day, and their children. How do you choose between who gets to go to a good school and who gets to be healthy?"

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288