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Balancing act: GOP, DFL lawmakers bond over the budget — but only briefly

Love was all around at the Capitol March 17. St. Patrick’s Day cheer brought out the bipartisan collegiality — one House member even announced during the floor session that there was cake to share in honor of the holiday.

Then Marty Seifert had to spoil the fun.

Rep. Alice Hausman
Rep. Alice Hausman

Seifert, a Republican from Marshall, played up his role as House minority leader and took to the mike right after adjournment for an announcement. There he called out Rep. Alice Hausman, a DFLer from St. Paul who happens to be carrying the gavel on the bonding bill. Where, Seifert wondered, was the bill more than a week after it passed the House? What happened, he asked in a tone that was not playing nice, to the deadline of March 15? Why, Seifert wanted to know, had a conference committee set up to hash out House and Senate differences on the bill not even met yet?

Hausman rose and emphasized the importance of the bill and the “urgency” of getting it done. “Without an agreement on the size of the bill, however, it’s hard to even write the first line,” Hausman said. “You don’t know what the target is. And so, we are waiting for some agreement about the total of the bill.”

Seifert, who emphasized that he was not blaming Hausman, went on to slam the Senate DFLers for holding up the bill. “My announcement is to the people of Minnesota,” Seifert concluded. “The left hand does not know what the far left hand is doing.”

Most everyone saw Seifert as engaging in a bit of political theater, but he had a point: What was going on with the bonding bill?

Ten days earlier, the House passed an “omnibus capital investment bill” consisting of $960 million in general obligation bonds. At the same time the Senate approved a proposal for $965 million for bricks-and-mortar infrastructure repair and upgrades around the state. On Jan. 14, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office issued a proposal for $965 million in general obligation bonding. Everyone, it appeared, was on the same page.

But then the state’s budget forecast came out in February, predicting a gloomy $1 billion shortfall. Pawlenty re-jiggered his dollar amount, saying the total for any bonding projects should be $825 million, a figure that is within 3 percent of the state’s projected revenues — maintaining a long-standing policy that debt service and costs never go higher than that chunk of the state’s budget.

Now the House and Senate are having trouble shrinking their wish lists. Some lawmakers are eyeing cuts in each bill, but are also wary of speaking out for fear of losing pet projects that bring home the bacon in their own districts. But the belt-tightening has to happen. If not, Pawlenty will likely veto any bill that doesn’t come within spitting distance of his $825 million.

“The gorillas can wait,” chuckled Rep. Larry Howes, a Republican from Walker, referring to some $11 million in the House bill for “renovation of the polar bear and gorilla exhibits” at the Como Zoo. “They seem to be comfortable and don’t seem to be escaping. We’ve got to get down to $825 [million]. That’s when we earn our salary.”

On track for a veto?

Lawmakers have been waiting all week to hear that a compromise on the bill from both chambers will be back on the floor, but it looks like they might have to wait at least until Friday. The sticky wicket, according to some, is Sen. Keith Langseth, a DFLer from Glyndon who is carrying the bill in the Senate. (Langseth did not return calls for this story.)

Many believe that Hausman and House DFL leadership are willing to come down to Pawlenty’s figure, something Langseth is not willing to do.

“I totally believe Representative Hausman is willing to come down to $825 million,” Howes said Tuesday. “Senator Langseth wants to come in at $965 million. They can put one together at $925 million, and it should be pretty much completed.”

Even if the House and Senate can agree to that dollar amount, it’s not likely to get them anywhere. “Anything above $825 million, I’m told, will be vetoed,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano. “It will be vetoed.”

Pawlenty didn’t just arrive at his $825 willy-nilly. That’s 3 percent of the state’s projected revenue, and that cap has been agreed upon by all party leadership for decades at the Capitol. It’s also the recommendation from state economist Tom Stinson. The thought is that going above the 3 percent figure would be frowned upon by bond houses, threatening the state’s bond rating.

“For 30 years we haven’t broken the 3 percent rule, we didn’t even make it a law,” said Patrick Garofalo, a Republican from Farmington. “The governor’s not going to break the 3 percent rule. It’s not negotiable. People who don’t want to come in at $825 million don’t want a bonding bill.”

But many lawmakers in both chambers are comfortable with the bills as they stand — because no one wants to see personal projects cut. Many are willing to vote for a $925 million bill, all the while awaiting the governor’s veto stamp. And many note that because of the ugliness that came with the override of Pawlenty’s veto on the $6.6 billion transportation/transit bill earlier this session, legislators are not anxious to betray the governor again.

“How many times do you want to push your luck with an override?” Howes asked. “People at home start wondering what you’re doing, and you can’t explain it in a 10- to 15-second sound bite.”

But everyone agrees that the session can’t end without a bonding bill. So a veto would likely send lawmakers back to the drawing board. “Why are we looking at $925 million? Because it’s an election year?” Garofalo asked Wednesday. “I’d rather we just do it right the first time.”

DFL: It’s a ‘jobs bill’
Hausman sees the 3 percent rule as somewhat arbitrary. “It’s a little like signing a no-new taxes pledge,” she said late last week.

But everyone is aware that the state’s economic picture isn’t pretty. To that end, the DFLers are spinning the bonding bill as a jobs bill.

“With the Minnesota economy desperate for recovery and jobs at a premium,” reads the Senate summary of Senate File 3295, “the Senate has taken the lead in efforts to spur much-needed investment in critical infrastructure and job creation.”

Hausman certainly sees it that way. “In a year of economic downturn, we have to have the courage to create jobs,” Hausman said, adding that there are 4,000 jobs to be had in the bill. “Isn’t this the year for something like the Minnesota Marshall Plan?”

A good question, but an idea that’s a bit far-fetched. Both bills call for roughly $135 million for the University of Minnesota, while the Senate version calls for $200 million for MnSCU and the House calls for $208 million. They both have roughly the same figure — $35 million — for the Department of Education, and generously fund projects for the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The House, Senate and governor all have different visions for funding roads and bridges — a political hot potato — but some believe there’s plenty of that in the transportation bill.

So, it really is going to come down to line-item cuts if all three parties are going to agree. Hausman is aware of the governor’s warning about “porking up the bonding bill,” but she also said there is “so little understanding about the bonding bill. People don’t make a connection between the bonding bill and all the rest of the state’s infrastructure.”

That may be true, but she has to deal with Langseth and her cohorts in the Senate as well as the governor before she can convince the public.

Which could be difficult, according to Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester and Senate minority leader. Senjem said the Senate version contains Langseth’s “great tradition” of funding higher education, and is also big on flood control this year, two things he’s not likely to give up.

“These aren’t easy decisions,” Senjem said. “Some of these things we have to fund. The House bill is a little partisan, and ours might be geographically, but we need to do some things and cut some other things.”

Senjem realizes that Senate Republicans, outnumbered by DFLers two to one, can’t do much, but he thinks DFL leadership and the governor should just sit down and hammer out a bill.

“This bonding bill is going to have a rocky road,” Senjem said. “It’s whoever can play the big game of chicken well.”

G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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