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Putting words in the governor’s mouth

Gov. Tim Pawlenty makes his sixth State of the State speech at the St. Cloud Civic Center Wednesday.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

George Orwell, it would surprise no one, wasn’t a big fan of political language. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” the old grump assailed the denigration of written English — particularly in the political arena.

“The mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing,” he wrote, referring not just to writing by politicians, but to the words of political pundits as well. “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing.” Orwell then summarized his brooding with a famous line: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

All of that would certainly ring true to anyone who watched George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address a couple of weeks back, but Orwell wasn’t assailing strictly politicians. And surely not all elected leaders deserve Orwell’s scorn. Or do they?

On Monday, the day before the 2008 Minnesota legislative session began, the leaders of the state House of Representatives and Senate issued a press release about their expectations for what promises to be a moody time at the Capitol in coming weeks.

“This session is about jobs,” the missive quoted Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, as saying. “We know that the state must create and retain good-paying jobs, and we are going to do everything we can to do just that.  We’re going to do that with an aggressive and targeted jobs bill to spur economic growth, and a transportation bill to make our roads and bridges safe.”

A similar rhetorical flourish from House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, concluded the release. “We’re going to continue to bridge the partisan divide and move the state in a positive direction,” Kelliher said. “One of the first bills we’ll be passing is a bipartisan effort to help preserve our natural heritage for future generations.  We are going to get in, get our work done, and make Minnesota a better state.”

At a media conference later in the day, Kelliher hoped out loud that the session would avoid “word games and gimmicks,” surely a shot at the Republican opposition and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

On Wednesday, Pawlenty will get his chance to retort as he delivers his sixth State of the State address (PDF) at the St. Cloud Civic Center. In the past, Pawlenty has delivered the speech in his classic style: somewhat benign but seemingly forthright, folksy, with a smattering of quips to keep from sounding too stately.

What, we wondered, might lawmakers expect to hear from the governor this time? And what would they like to hear? Phone calls to a handful of legislators dialed with no particular agenda in mind yielded the following results. But bear in mind that this is just wishful thinking and speculation, because actions speak louder than …

Gauging the governor’s mood on the money
We know from the DFL leaders that they’ll be attacking the governor on jobs, jobs, jobs. (The headline on the Pogemiller/Kelliher release was “Legislative session will focus on creating and retaining jobs.”)  But jobs and the economy are a priority for many of Pawlenty’s fellow Republicans as well.

“I think he’ll be focusing on the economy in the state of Minnesota,” said state Sen. Paul Koering, a Republican from Fort Ripley. “He needs to lay out in a very comprehensive way what kind of state Minnesota is in financially and how long we will be in a downturn.”

Pretty gloomy stuff, isn’t it? “He needs to do it in a way that’s not entirely negative,” Koering said, “but being straightforward — things are bad. Don’t paint a rosy picture.”

Rep. Marty Seifert, the minority leader for the Republicans in the House, agrees with Koering, but also hopes the governor gets to the details. “I’d like to see him lay out specific strategies on the budget,” Seifert said, adding that he knows State of the State addresses rarely get beyond platitudes. “He needs to stick to the message that the bonding bill will not be full of pork projects, and that the budget is priority number one.”

Of course, the budget shortfall, a reported $373 million that some are saying could climb to $800 million, puts limits on much else, to the dismay of some legislators. “The problem is money,” said Rep. Neil Peterson, a Bloomington Republican. “Transportation is the 900-pound gorilla [this session], and I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it with the budget we’re looking at.”

Works well with others?
Perhaps because of the state deficit, lawmakers are assuming that Pawlenty knows he can’t go it alone, and needs to reach out to leaders of both parties.

“He’s going to have to appeal in his speech to the Legislature to work with him, especially on the transportation issue,” predicts David Senjem, minority leader for the Republicans in the Senate.  “He’ll probably highlight his willingness to work with individual caucuses. But at the end of the day, we’ll all be looking at what he’ll say on transportation.”

Senjem noted that the governor will probably “deal with broad policy statements,” and not get into much else. Still, he ticked off a list of things he’d like to hear to governor touch on, including renewable energy, health care, the climate. “I do hope that he talks about job creation,” Senjem concluded, before adding: “He might offer some support for his transportation commissioner. It’s be a great time to build her up, since they’re going to throw her out anyway.”

Of course, if Pawlenty wants to reach across the aisle, he’s going to have to stretch. Rep. Frank Hornstein, a DFLer from Minneapolis, doesn’t have much hope. “I expect the usual unfortunate rhetoric against immigrants,” Hornstein sighed. “He’ll talk about tax issues, and may initiate some dialogue on health care and climate change, but these aren’t serious positions, in my mind. There will be some intimation of bipartisan support, but nothing substantive.”

OK, Mr. Pessimist, what would you like to hear? “I’d like to hear some recognition of bold new rhetoric that doesn’t divide people,” Hornstein offered. “People are tired of divisiveness, whether it’s urban against rural or whatever. That doesn’t work with the public anymore.”

And some lawmakers are even less enthused than Hornstein. “My expectations are pretty low in general, because there’s no money,” said Mary Liz Holberg, a GOP state rep from Lakeville.

Holberg did point to another issue, namely that the speech is in St. Cloud, and some legislators might be well inclined to skip the address altogether, given the bleak picture that’s likely to be painted.

Is she going? “On the record or off the record?” she laughed. “I didn’t even go the last couple years it was in the chambers. I’ve been really naughty.”