No mutinies when Steve Sviggum captained the ship

MInnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

There was strong reaction last week to the torn flesh and spilled blood when House Minority Leader Marty Seifert tied six fellow Republicans to the public mast, and lashed them for voting to override Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation funding bill. But few have held that lash and had to make that decision.

Former House Speaker and former Minority Leader Steve Sviggum has.  You have to lay on the lash, in Sviggum’s view, but he disagrees with how Siefert did it.

“To empower the governor and a minority [caucus], you have to be able to support the governor’s vetoes or you become powerless in the system,” said Sviggum, now Pawlenty’s commissioner for the Department of Labor and Industry.  “You have to empower each other.”

Sviggum, a House member for 29 years until he stepped down last year to take over the department, likened it to the rare occasion when one of his three children acted up during church service. “We didn’t spank them in the sanctuary,” the Lutheran father said.  But there was a subsequent meeting of hand and bottom.

Last week, the six rogue Republicans voted with every House DFLer to override Pawlenty’s veto of a $6.6 billion transportation-funding bill that eventually hikes the state gas tax 8.5 cents, raises license tab fees on most vehicles and, in the seven-county metro area, jacks up the sales tax a quarter of a cent.  The six Republicans said they were voting what was best for their districts.

Privately, not publicly

Seifert, perturbed, stripped them of their caucus leadership positions. The action made headlines and talk shows and, in the eyes of some Minnesotans, made true democrats of the six who defied their governor and their minority leader.

“It probably wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Sviggum, who gave his views to MinnPost cautiously, concerned that he might appear to be a Monday morning whiner. 

“I don’t want to come off like I’m advising people who don’t need my advice. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the wrong issue became the story.  

“It would have been better to do something privately than publicly. The focus becomes the Republicans,” he said.  The focus should have been the DFLers and the various tax increases embedded in the bill, according to Sviggum.

Sviggum, who has experience in such matters, said he would have waited to discipline them.  He would have left them off conference committees, denied their private requests for appointment to commissions, not approved their requests to take trips or attend forums at public expense.  In other words, he wouldn’t have done it in the sanctuary but he would have done it.

Not one bill overridden

He did, he said.  The discipline and the implied threat of discipline paid off.  Republican Gov. Arne Carlson vetoed more than 100 bills, and not one of them was overridden despite more than a dozen attempts.  “It wasn’t because our caucus members liked Arne so well.  But you had to empower the governor.”

Sviggum recalled in 1996 he was the minority leader of a caucus of 46.  It takes 45 votes in the House to sustain a veto.  When a DFL override attempt was announced on the House floor, he asked for a recess.  His caucus trooped into a room, and behind closed doors, he told his colleagues they couldn’t leave until he had 45 signatures on a sheet of paper.  “A little over two hours later we had the names,” he said.

Last week, the six said they were voting in the best interests of their districts, and voting their consciences.

That is the moral high ground, Sviggum acknowledged.  You can’t say voting your district is wrong or that caucus loyalty trumps conscience, but that presumes everyone in those six districts — or at least a majority — favored the funding bill. It also presumes every House DFLer voted the preferences of voters in his or her district. “I would suspect some of them did not vote their district,” he said.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Matty Lang on 03/06/2008 - 10:33 am.

    I bet if Steve knew about the photo illustration, he wouldn’t have shared his views with MinnPost. 😉
    While Steve Sviggum is obviously more strategic than Seifert, he is certainly no Johnny Depp.

    With the recent study published by the Brookings Institute showing that states’ economies are dependent on the health of their metropolitan regions, we can rest assured that all house DFLers and the six Republicans voted their districts’ best interest.

    Sorry Steve, the days of bashing Minneapolis and St. Paul are past. We need to be united as a state and our state’s health starts with the health of our metropolitan region.

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