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Bye-bye, bonding bill? Lawmakers wait — and wonder what Pawlenty will do

By G.R. Anderson Jr. | Thursday, April 3, 2008
Both the Senate and the House passed the $925 million “Capital Investment” bill Wednesday. Gov.

G.R. Anderson Jr.

At the tail end of a three-hour debate over the bonding bill on the House floor Wednesday, the DFL’s chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul, sounded a weary note.

“I was a unicameral supporter back in the days when we had a tiny little bit of a debate about that,” Hausman noted of a long-ago notion floated by Jesse Ventura. “In part it was because of the messiness of this process. It’s probably not one you would invent for efficient decision making.”

Boy, she could say that again. Nearly a month after the House and the Senate each passed their versions of an “Omnibus Capital Investment bill,” (PDF) the two sides finally came together and passed a version that had been gestating for weeks in conference committee. The back-and-forth between Hausman and the Senate’s bill carrier, Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, took on slightly mythical status in some corners of the Capitol, as the days dragged on before the committee even met. Even though the House and Senate versions were only $5 million apart, consensus even within the same party seemed maddeningly out of reach.

By many accounts, Hausman and the House DFL leadership were somewhat held hostage by Langseth and Democratic Senate leaders. In light of the state’s budget forecast earlier this session, which predicted a $935 million deficit this year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty — acting on the recommendation of the state’s economist Tom Stinson — said that he would not sign a bonding bill that was larger than $825 million. Langseth, it was repeated on both floors, would not come down below $925 million in general obligation bonds, even though Hausman and many of her DFLer cohorts were willing to go lower.

In the end, the feeling in the air Wednesday was that for all the support the bill received in both chambers, lawmakers had passed a bill that would never see the light of day.

Pawlenty generally criticized DFL lawmakers today, but even the Republican leadership professes to not know what the governor will do with the bonding bill. Pawlenty has indicated he would veto any bill that did not match his $825 million figure, but some GOPers are hoping Pawlenty might get out his line-item veto pen, rather than using the rubber stamp that vetoes the whole package.

The bill was sent to Pawlenty this morning, which means he will have until midnight on Monday to make a decision. But if he torpedoes the entire thing, it could very well be that lawmakers will not go back to the drawing board — and after the transportation bill override, there is little will to override the governor again.

In other words, bye-bye, bonding bill.

A full veto?
“My sense is that there will be a full veto, and in the house the veto will be sustained,” David Senjem, the Senate’s minority leader, said this morning, adding that the handful of House Republicans who voted for the bill would not vote to override the governor. “My instincts will be then that everybody will say we won’t have a bonding bill.”

Rep. Ryan Winkler, a House DFLer from Golden Valley, shares Senjem’s view. “My prediction is the bill will be vetoed in total, which is what [Pawlenty] did last year,” Winkler said today. “A better approach would be the line-item pen.”

But many lawmakers, even on the GOP side, fear coming up empty, especially in an election year. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert said during debate Wednesday that he would be willing to talk to Pawlenty about going the line-item route, but only after railing DFL leadership — particularly Langseth — for crafting a bill sure to sink.

Still, it was a conciliatory gesture of sorts by the normally polarizing Seifert, and it’s a sentiment echoed by some of his colleagues. “I’m hoping to talk with Representative Seifert and the governor and recommend some line items,” said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Howes pointed to two things many in his party take issue with: the $70 million set aside for the Central Corridor Light Rail and the $11 million for a gorilla exhibit at the Como Zoo. “There’s $81 million right there,” Howes said. The Como dollars were repeatedly derided by Republicans as money for “gorilla cages,” and the feeling among Howes, Senjem and others is that the Central Corridor project is not far enough along to be spending money on planning.

“This won’t do any jobs,” Howes said, twisting the DFL spin on the bonding as a “jobs bill.” “This will just hire lawyers and planners and advisers. This won’t put a shovel in the ground.”

Brutal cuts, to be sure, but something has to give. Even many House Democrats have ambivalent feelings about the bill and, like Winkler, would have preferred to come in at Pawlenty’s number. “Absolutely, that’s what I thought,” Winkler said. “There was a lot more interest in the House in paring it back.”

Winkler warns against pulling the money for the Central Corridor and the Southwest Corridor, light rail plans that have already received federal money, but he does think that some transit money in the bill could be “reprioritized.”

‘Touch-and-go governor’
The odd thing is, there’s not much difference between the original versions the House and the Senate passed and the final product. If cutting $40 million out could happen, fiscal conservatives figure, then another $100 million more could certainly be saved. But at this point, it’s as much about politics as spurring jobs and reviving the economy through local infrastructure projects.

Last week, Sen. Tarryl Clark, the assistant majority leader in the Senate, criticized Pawlenty’s role in the bonding bill debate, calling him a “touch-and-go governor. The governor is able to line-item veto without him coming to us and saying, ‘Here is my . . . bonding bill,’ [which] he did not,” Clark said, defending the projects in the bill. “He can take out that big pen he likes so much.”

Winkler shares the same feeling, saying that “the governor hasn’t exactly been willing to come to the table. He drew a line in the sand and said go figure it out.” Clark concluded her remarks Friday by saying: “We need him to be here.”

The strategy is to portray Pawlenty as an absentee governor, especially one interested in being vice president of the United States.

But there’s a more practical reason for Pawlenty to resist the line item: Why should he be the bad guy?

“What’s in play here is the VP possibility,” Senjem offered. “They’re trying to paint Pawlenty as an ineffective governor.”

Rep. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka who drew much fire for voting to override Pawlenty’s veto on the transportation bill, is firmly in the governor’s corner this time around.

“Whatever he vetoes is going to stay vetoed,” Abeler said this morning. “We need to make the decisions on what’s actually needed and what’s just nice.”

Abeler has no doubt that Pawlenty could come up with a better bill than what’s been passed, but wonders why it should all fall on the governor. “If the governor line-itemed, it would be a tighter bill,” Abeler said. “But it creates ill will, you know, Bemidji gets mad at him. And, you know, the governor likes the zoo.”

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