Just a week ago, both parties at the Capitol and the governor were trumpeting an agreement of sorts: To actually meet over the weekend to fix the state’s budget shortfall. By all accounts, the talks were longer, more intensive and smoother than expected. Today, the three sides can’t come to an agreement on when to meet this weekend.
“It’s the governor’s intention to meet Sunday evening,” according to Sen. David Senjem, the Rochester Republican and Senate minority leader, who added that Tim Pawlenty has the gubernatorial fishing opener to deal with Saturday. “But then the notion is we’re inflicting on Mother’s Day.”
If the session is going to teeter on a fishing opener/Mother’s Day tug of war, how will the players ever find a way to cough up $1 billion to plug the state’s bottom line?
“We do believe the conversation is going well,” said Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, the assistant majority leader. “We have a week, more than a week left.”
But Clark’s tempered optimism during her news conference Friday morning at the Capitol was doused in a GOP media event immediately following. Senjem lamented that lawmakers and Pawlenty are 14 weeks into the session with no foreseeable budget agreement. “I think this session is on life support,” he cracked, though he wasn’t joking. “Funeral arrangements are pending.”
Sticking points remain the same
Though appearing to not be on the same page, GOPers and DFLers essentially agree on the sticking points. The governor still wants to tap some money from the Health Care Access Fund, by which Democrats will not abide. And though Clark pointed out that the DFL came to the governor with no new revenue proposals — read taxes — per his request, Republicans are unhappy with a host of other issues, going back to the override of the governor’s veto of the transportation bill and the current efforts in both chambers to raise the minimum wage.
Senjem griped about DFLers wanting to destroy the last five years of Pawlenty “reform measures,” and Sen. Geoff Michel, an Edina Republican, pointed to the minimum wage hike: “They can’t continue an assault on job creation.”
Michel also referred to the Northwest Airlines merger and recent reports about 3M and Medtronic, continuing Senjem’s death march theme. “The business sections of your newspapers look like obituaries,” Michel told reporters.
Clark, for her part, said the Central Corridor and some semblance of a DFL-proposed health care reform bill, while not part of the budget negotiations, are still major issues for Democrats. Pawlenty’s brutal line-item vetoes on the bonding bill still leave a bad taste.
Surely there’s more than a hint of political posturing going on here, of course. But things sure seem increasingly bleak as the session winds down to its required May 19 adjournment. So, if no budget agreement surfaces, and soon, there are two options: Pawlenty could call lawmakers back into a special session or he could go into “unallotment” mode, where he starts cutting already-agreed-upon budgets to balance the books.
The ugly truth about unallotment
A week ago, Senjem spoke against unallotment, but today he was all for it. “We can control our own destiny,” he said.
But the fact is, unallottment would be ugly. For starters, the state has some $655 million in budget reserve, which would have to be spent all the way down, according to Michel, before the governor can start slashing. “Then we’re going into next year with zero,” Michel said, adding that with inflation and no real solution, next year the budget deficit could run up to $2 billion.
Then Pawlenty has to decide where to strike. Michel noted that 40 percent of the budget is wrapped up in K-12 education, but nobody wants to go there. There’s some 25 percent wrapped up in health and human services, which Michel indicated might be a place to start looking for spare change, and then, of course, state agencies.
(At a hearing earlier this session, representatives from the secretary of state, attorney general and auditor offices told legislators they simply had nowhere to cut and still have functioning offices.)
Word around the Capitol is that Pawlenty is marking his calendar for a special session, and Rep. Marty Seifert, Republican from Marshall who is the House minority leader, is already eyeing up targets for unallotment.
When either notion was floated to Clark, she crowed about the governor, “He’s not king!”
She was asked whether she preferred a special session or unallotment. “We prefer an orderly conclusion with a bill signed and the budget solved.”
A nice notion, but Michel said that earlier ill will has affected the budget process “a lot, a lot.” “It infects this place,” he said. “There’s bad feelings and bitterness.”