Today’s meeting between House and Senate leadership and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, which supposedly was called for by DFLers, had a bit of a NASCAR vibe going in — were people interested in the outcome or just the possibility of a spectacular crash here and there?
Rubberneckers might be disappointed to learn that, by all accounts, things went smoothly.
“The governor felt like this was a helpful and cordial meeting,” Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung noted at a subsequent media conference outside the guv’s office just after 11 a.m.
At issue is the $935 million budget deficit, and the bills passed from each chamber that are now being hashed out in conference committee. And then, of course, there’s Pawlenty’s wish list for how to patch up the shortfall. So there’s little chance for consensus out of the gate. Then add to that the subtext of what’s turned out to be a somewhat nasty session: The House override of Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto early on, and then the governor’s recent slashing of the bonding bill, which certainly smacked of political payback to even a casual observer.
DFL leadership — which included House Speaker Margaret Anderson Keliher, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark — generally gave off the vibe that the preliminary meeting was off to a good start.
Republican leadership, most notably House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, echoed those sentiments.
Seifert, who has fired off more than a few partisan rounds in the House this session, in particular seemed sanguine rather than snappish, calling the convening a “good meeting.” “Last year, every time we had one of these meetings, it seemed like a step backward,” said Seifert, a Republican from Marshall. “It was refreshing to move forward.”
Some sticking points
All three sides acknowledged that every possible budget solution — whether it be cuts or tapping other existing funds or revenues — was on the old proverbial table. But there are bound to be at least two sticking points.
The first is a surplus in something called the Health Care Access Fund, which Pawlenty has indicated he wants to use $250 million of to balance the checkbook. DFLers have balked at that notion, and Keliher, a DFLer from Minneapolis, today again emphasized that the fund should be used for health care. Even Seifert and Senjem, a GOPer from Rochester, indicated they understood that money to be off limits now.
The second is Pawlenty’s line-item veto in the bonding bill of the $70 million for the Central Corridor Light Rail project. All sides indicated that bonding bill issues weren’t discussed much, but rather the deficit was topic du jour.
“The speaker brought it [the Central Corridor] up and we just sat there,” Seifter admitted.
But it’s doubtful DFLers will give that one up, and McClung, while expressing the governor’s concerns over the project, dangled some of Pawlenty’s pet projects out there as possible bargaining chips to revive the light rail funding.
Which is all well and good, but when will these players get down to actually putting together a budget agreement? McClung said the governor’s office will spend the rest of the week “assembling info,” and DFLers said to expect nothing this week.
As for the Republicans, Seifert said “I don’t like setting up false expectations” for a target date for talks to begin in earnest and to get a deal hashed out. But he added with a grin: “I suggested my birthday, the 23rd of April.”