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Legislative budget debate lively but clearly stuck on the Road to Nowhere

And they're off.

The first really big week of the legislative session started Monday like this: Gov. Mark Dayton writes a letter to Republican legislative leaders, who are offended.

In the midst of House debate on taxes, Rep. Matt Dean defends a colleague by pointing to Page 101 of House rules. Don't impugn the motives of fellow legislators, the rule says.

In a separate exchange, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL- Minneapolis, questions the math skills of Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha.

Oh yes, they're off.

New Capitol theme song?
And just listening to the opening salvos surrounding the Republicans' budget bills that were brought up Monday, there's an obvious theme song for what's happening at the Capitol: The Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere."

It goes like this:

We're on a road to nowhere
Come on inside

Takin' that ride to nowhere
We'll take that ride.

It's clear. This portion of the legislative process is going nowhere. But it's not getting there fast. Still, it's entertaining, in a going-nowhere sort of way.

Monday was the day that Republican legislative leaders started unveiling their fiscal bills on the floors of the House and Senate.

The Senate was sort of wimpy. It opened by presenting the agriculture bill, perhaps the only bill that's not loaded with controversy. The bill was passed after only a modicum of debate.

But there was nothing wimpy about the approach of the House leaders. They put their tax and transit bills on the floor to get things started. Both, of course, are loaded with controversial policy issues.

And right from the beginning, the tax bill got bogged down in a long debate. This is the bill that gives a "tax break" to low-wage earners. But actually, while low-wage workers get back $20 or less from the "break," the wealthiest get more than $100 in tax reductions.

"But the lower-paid get a higher percentage back," explained Rep. Greg Davids, who heads the House Tax Committee.

DFL, GOP spar over LGA
It wasn't, however, that portion of the Republican tax bill that got things off to a grinding start. It was the cuts to Local Government Aid.

Under the Republican proposal, you recall, the first-class cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth are zeroed out of LGA money in a couple of years. (Rochester is spared from that treatment.) Meantime, rural cities keep collecting at least some funds.

DFLers find this proposal mean-spirited, unfair and partisan.

Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, proposed an amendment that would spare LGA cuts and create revenue by cutting tax credits that local corporations receive for overseas investments.

Rep. Michael Paymar
Rep. Michael Paymar

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, pointed out that he was a minority member of the tax committee that came up with the LGA proposal.

"I have to say, I was on that committee and couldn't believe some of the things I heard," Paymar said.

He cited Republicans on the committee saying such things as LGA money "just increases the dependency" of the big cities.

He said he asked Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, why Circle Pines' LGA money shouldn't be cut.

"She said, 'Circle Pines is more stable,' " Paymar said.

Then, he started ticking off the Republican members of the committee who had supported zeroing out the cities while sparing rural communities. Those Republicans, he noted, all come from communities that get LGA money.

That's when House Majority Leader Matt Dean pointed to Page 101 of the House rule book.

"I would remind members," Dean said, "the motivation of other members is not to be impugned."

House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he didn't think he needed to rule on Dean's point but he hoped members understood the rule.

"I don't care how you rule," Paymar said to the speaker. "I was not questioning anyone's motives. I was just stating fact."

The debate went on and on with Republicans constantly implying that the big cities — home to DFL representation — don't manage their money well, while small towns, typically represented by Republicans, are managed beautifully but need the money for police and fire protection.

Drazkowski didn't even bother to imply that places like Minneapolis are managed poorly. He started listing projects that he believes shows the big city has ample money without LGA.

"Let's look at some expenditures," he said and then listed: "$5.3 million for a green roof at the Target Center, $460,000 for a green roof at City Hall, $1.75 million for an art garden. … Is this how people want LGA money spent? $60,245 for an energy fair where they give away fluorescent light bulbs. $250,000 for bike sharing. $775,000 for graffiti removal. … $900,000 for a skateboard park."

On and on he went before Kahn got a chance to speak.

Kahn goes after "fuzzy math"
"We can have lots of disputes about policy," said Kahn, adding that she can get pretty worked up about policy issues.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Rep. Phyllis Kahn

But nothing, absolutely nothing, agitates the former University of Minnesota physics prof as much as bad math.

She accused Drazkowski of "bad elementary math" and pointed out just one issue that he had listed as money wasted by Minneapolis. That was the $900,000 he claimed the city had spent on a skateboard park.

In fact, she said, the skateboard park was scheduled to open when the city built public athletic fields at Fort Snelling.

"That was part of a deal with a prominent Republican," she said. That prominent Republican was going to develop the skateboard park as part of a public-private partnership. "But that prominent Republican failed to honor his commitment," Kahn said, leaving the Park Board on the hook for $900,000.

The Park Board handled that debt by selling the property that was going to be used for skateboarding to the Boy Scouts.

"They sold it for a profit," she said, adding again that Drazkowski "should be ashamed of his bad elementary math."

For the record, he didn't seem to be ashamed.

And for the record the DFL amendment not only lost but was replaced by an amendment by Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, that seems to take an even bigger whack at LGA funds while protecting those "job producing" big corporations with overseas operations.

The DFLers, of course, know that all their wailing and gnashing of teeth are going nowhere. The House tax bill, after all the debate, finally did pass on a 73-59 vote, mostly on party lines.

All of the Republican bills will sail through the House and Senate — right into Dayton's office. In other words, most of these bills are going nowhere.

If there were any doubt of that, Dayton, who has tried to promote himself as a leader willing to compromise, wrote a stern letter to Republican legislative leaders.

Governor outlines concerns, irks GOP leaders
He made it clear he's not going to sign budget bills piecemeal.

"I will not favorably consider a single budget bill without knowing its relationship to a complete and balanced budget solution," he wrote.

He also expressed great concern over Republicans refusal to accept all fiscal notes provided by the Minnesota Management and Budget office and the Department of Revenue. Those fiscal notes are the baseline numbers Republicans and DFLers use in building budgets. They're prepared by nonpartisan staff.

Those numbers "must be accepted by all parties as the official arbiters of the revenues and expenditures resulting from our respective proposals," Dayton wrote.

Dayton also "invited" Republicans to remove "all extraneous policy items from your appropriations and tax bills."

Presumably, Dayton's referring to such things as taking integration funds from the school aid formula and spending the money elsewhere.

Republican leaders were not impressed by the governor's letter.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch called the governor's letter "a barrier" that prevents the Legislature and the governor from having "substantive" discussions.

Rather than write letters, she said, the governor should just give her a call. "He's got my cell phone, I've got his.''

 Sen. Geoff Michel, a major Republican leader, said that the governor shouldn't "draw lines in the sand." He talked of the wonders of compromise.

Does that mean Republicans are willing to erase their no-new-taxes line in the sand and compromise?

"Are we going to raise taxes?" Michel asked. "No."

We're on the road to nowhere.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (14)

It sure is tough to shame people who are so far gone off the deep end that they cannot be shamed.

I fear for the future of this state.

Rep. Runbeck's motives are oh so clear, and so disgusting. Just as it's disgusting that so many of her GOP colleagues are supporting her.

I expect scathing editorials from the STrib and PiPress over this!

Oh, who am I kidding...

Some people have no shame. It is funny to see these Republicans whine about a lack of compromise. It's also rather wild to see them start to realize what kind of government they've been elected to run for the first time. Oh, yeah, this is a democracy, you can pass laws but they have to be legal, constitutional, and signed by the governor. What?

You know, I don't understand the mindset of rural Minnesota. The green roofs, the art, the museums, and the bike paths...last time I looked, these things were open to everyone, regardless of where they live. These are the quality of life things that draw businesses to our state and keep our talented young people here.

Minneapolis and St. Paul create the most tax revenue in our state, yet rural Minnesota wants to keep theirs and cut ours. Maybe they should try living within THEIR means before telling us how to live within ours.

No doubt the people of Minnesota will weather the effects of the endless temper tantrums thrown by these spoiled children and in the next election vote for actual, psychologically functional adults who are interested in finding reasonable, moderate, shared-sacrifice solutions to the problems we face.

But for this year and next, Minnesota is going to be anything BUT "the state that works."

Our Republican legislators are in complete denial about their own motives and about the clearly-stated fact that Governor Dayton is going to veto all these bills. You can always identify such denial when the response to legitimate questions you raise amounts to nothing more than "I can't believe you would accuse me of such a thing! (especially when you haven't even made an accusation)."

They so believe, based on their psychological dysfunctions, which give them such massive blind spots that they cannot discern the truth about the effects of what they're doing nor discern their own motivations for doing it,...

They SO believe that what they're doing is not only "good," and "right" and "fair" (all evidence to the contrary being incomprehensible to them - they simply can't hear, see, understand, or acknowledge such evidence), that they're going to do what they're going to do, even if God thunders his disapproval with bolts of lightening and rends the house and senate chamber roofs asunder.

Refusing to move even a millimeter from their preexisting positions, they will then scream and holler, whine and moan, keen and wail about how Governor Dayton is unwilling to compromise with THEM.

Of course the only "compromise" they would find acceptable would be if Governor Dayton gave them everything they wanted. For our dysfunctional Nuvo Republican friends (unlike their old fashioned mathematically-able, fiscally responsible, socially moderate predecessors) that is what "compromise" is: give us everything we want. Then we'll take even more than you thought you were giving us while still attacking you for not agreeing with us in the first place.

I hope and pray the Governor Dayton will stick to his guns, veto every one of these bills, then respectfully (like the playschool teacher telling the unruly children to settle down and take their naps that they're requiring him to be), tell them to start over from scratch and produce something that is not only economically fair, that not only requires sacrifice of the state's wealthiest citizens, but that protects the state's most vulnerable citizens, all those in need whom the Republicans simply are unable to see, and must therefore learn to trust other people's word that there even ARE vulnerable citizens in the state.

They will, of course, respond by stamping their feet and demanding to call their mommies and daddies to come save them (i.e. get their wealthy friends to run ads attacking governor Dayton) and, when that fails, shut down the government because that big mean Governor isn't caving in to what they want.

I can't help but wonder if any resolution will finally result from this very dysfunctional legislature's attempts to enact every misguided pipe dreamed piece of legislation dreamed up by the most rabid neoconservative sources they could find.

Probably not, but by that lack of resolution we shall clearly see that our Republican friends are not the least bit interested in solutions to our problems, they are only interested in enacting their "agenda."

But then, as we can so clearly see, you can always tell what such people will do if given the chance, by paying attention to what they reflexively accuse others of doing. I find myself wondering what it is that they've been accusing "liberals" and "big government" of doing (but that those folks have NEVER done) that they'll try to do next?

@Greg

You're partially right. You say that they're in denial and can't see.

My feeling is that they know exactly what the facts are, and they know exactly what they're doing.

Republicans don't like government. The last thing they want to do is raise taxes or in any way compromise or capitulate (recent polls have shown that Republicans in general dislike compromise more than Dems or Independents). And if the government shuts down as a result of their unwillingness to compromise, then that's just a bonus.

I think Dayton is in a tougher spot than the Republicans.

This may go down as the PDQ Legislature --

Posturing
Dithering
&
Quibbling.

I am tired beyond words of this stuff at both the state and national level. We need to begin voting in grown-ups who will actually address our problems.

Keep documenting the idiocies.

How do you compromise with people who believe compromise is weakness? If Republicans were just a bit reasonable about splitting differences, we wouldn't be in this situation, let alone despairing of a resolution.

The governor should veto their trash legislation, re-state his demands that they put together a balanced and complete budget package, offer to meet them in the middle, and be prepared to wait until hell freezes over.

//But the lower-paid get a higher percentage back," explained Rep. Greg Davids, who heads the House Tax Committee.

So now the GOP wants to consider taxes in the framework of percentages? They decry that approach when Dayton, the DFL and small business groups point out that the wealthiest Minnesotans pay 2-3% less in tax than low- and middle-income folks. For pity's sake, all we've been asking is that we narrow that gap and move towards greater tax fairness.

The biggest concern I have is the LGA dispute which appears to be geographic and partisan. This is a slippery slope. Perhaps when the tide changes and the DFL are in power they will introduce a bill to eliminate Southwest State University or to raise farm aid, etc. The DFL would be on more solid ground because they could at least say that these areas voted for smaller government. But it is poor policy. This is what today's Republicans don't understand-it's all about compromise. I hope they will reverse course but I am not hopeful.

The halmark of the contemporary radical conservative legislator is an absolute refusal to comprimise. Their ideological purity cannot be questioned. They were schooled on this when Pawlenty made sure the "overide 6" were not elected to the legislature the following term. Matt Dean is symbolic of this right wing zealotry that has found a majority in the house by demagoguery and mistatement. As my representative from Stillwater he is in the tradition of Michelle Bachmann and unfortunately has crafted a reputation as knowledgeable on health issues. In fact his only response to health care for the poor is to limit their access and the State's ability to pay for it. That is his expertise. He is a one way, my way, legislator. Funny, he supports the billion dollar boondoggle bridge over the St. Croix but everything else must be efficient and cut. He is the ultimate hypocrite.

Here's why the GOP must limit government: Say we give (tax the rich) the legislature a Metrodome full of money right now to solve all budget issues. In the very near future, they would be back saying, "We're broke... we need more". We would give them all they need, and they would be back again, "We're broke... we need more". They would never have enough, so we might as well choose a different path - limited government.

Jim,

Yours is a faith based fear divorced from history and reality. The runaway government you describe has never existed in the US despite surpluses. You create a false dichotomy when you pretend you support limited government and the rest of support unlimited government. We have a constitution that limits government. This theory that have to financially starve government out of existence in order to prevent a totalitarian state from emerging is hysterical fantasy pretending to be political ideology.

LGA is far from being a "handout" to the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth.

St. Paul and Minneapolis have large numbers of English-as-a-Second language students. Both have large areas where many or most of the residents live in poverty. Both have large numbers of homeless people needing whatever help can be offered, caused in part by the Banksters that used hard-sell tactics to talk people into mortgages they could not afford. All three cities have large areas devoted to institutions of higher education, which also pay no property taxes.

Something like 30 percent of St. Paul's land and structures are part of either state, county and local government or of religious institutions, while Minneapolis has both county and local governmental and religious properties. None pay property taxes to help support the infrastructure city services that sustain them.

LGA is not a "handout." It is a portion of the property tax we as homeowners, renters and businesses pay to maintain the city and county in which we live. It is OUR money morally and by law, not the legislature's.