To listen to Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2008 State of the State speech today, and the reaction of Republican leaders subsequently interviewed about it on MPR, one might think the governor keeps extending the olive branch toward those who disagree with him on how best to fund transportation, only to have them rap him on the knuckles.
“Strong differences of opinion exist regarding transportation funding,” the governor conceded. “But we all agree on one thing — we cannot continue the stalemate that has existed for three decades. I remain hopeful we can overcome the politics and rhetoric of this debate and pass a bipartisan transportation bill this session.”
Afterward, with respect to transportation funding, Senate minority leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said he thought the governor “reached out and said I’m willing to work with you.” And House minority leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, criticized legislators in the DFL majority, claiming, “They should be working with him, not going out on their own.”
Let us flash back not that far, to May of 2005. A bipartisan transportation funding bill was passed, out of both the DFL-majority Senate and a State House of Representatives then controlled by Republicans.
Gov. Pawlenty’s response to that bipartisan bill? He called a press conference and then, for the benefit of the cameras, pulled out a huge red VETO stamp and affixed it firmly down on the bill. “How dumb can they be?” he sneered at those who dared send him the bill. Lest anyone think this was simply a firm stand on any new government spending, Pawlenty came back less than 24 hours with a proposal for a 75-cent tax on cigarettes, which he dubbed “a health impact fee.” None of it went toward transportation.
Two years later, Pawlenty vetoed another comprehensive transportation bill passed out of both the House and Senate with votes from both parties. This bill dropped the amount of a gas tax increase from a dime to 7.5 cents in an effort to secure broader support, but Pawlenty held firm and the Legislature once again failed to override his veto.
Between those two vetoes, the Minnesota Department of Transportation ran out of money to complete their existing road projects on time. In June 2006, MnDoT was forced to delay the long-awaited repairs and widening of the always congested Crosstown Hwy. 62 project because of none of the contractors would agree to the state’s proposal to have them put up their own money between payments by the state.
After the second veto, of course, the I-35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007. Within 48 hours of that tragedy, the governor had signaled to DFL legislators and the public at large that he was ready to compromise on his no-tax stance to better fund transportation. “The governor will work with legislators on a comprehensive and long-term approach,” Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung told the Star Tribune. “We would expect that to include some of the governor’s ideas and some of the Legislature’s ideas and under those circumstances a gas tax could be included.”
But Pawlenty has reneged on those words since then. His only concession to his previous stance was that he would countenance an increase in the gas tax if a corresponding tax cut were found elsewhere in the budget, making the gas tax not a tax increase but a tax shift. He has not proposed any areas of the budget where those cuts could or should be made.
The only firm transportation funding proposals the governor himself has made thus far in his legislative session involve borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars for local roads and bridges through the bonding bill. By state law general obligation bonds cannot be spent on state trunk highway projects, one of the state’s biggest areas of need. Last year, Pawlenty proposed issuing $1.7 billion worth of highway bonds to fund local roads and bridges over a 10-year period.
If you use MnDoT’s own estimates on what it will require to fully fund Minnesota’s transportation needs (from $1 billion to $1.7 billion per year for a decade), the governor’s bonding proposal would have funded at best 17 percent of our transportation needs and required 30 years to repay. His statement in today’s State of the State speech that his administration has been “investing more in roads over the last five years than ever before” again involves almost exclusively borrowed money.
‘Taxpayer protection pen’
In today’s speech, Pawlenty also purposefully discouraged any thoughts DFL legislators might have that he would compromise on transportation tax increases. “I still have an important tool to restrain taxes and spending,” he stated. “I call it the taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen. As you know, I will not hesitate to use it to stop government from digging into your wallets.”
As for DFLers discounting that rhetoric, ignoring numerous examples in recent history and imagining that Pawlenty will sign on to a tax increase in the same year he is hosting the Republican National Convention while rumors fly of him appearing on the national ticket as a vice presidential candidate, well, the governor himself said it best: “How dumb can they be?”
Related: Read his lips… by G.R. Anderson Jr.