They work hard. Really, they do. That’s why lawmakers can speak truthfully of weekend negotiations that break at 3 a.m. and reconvene four hours later. But in recent years at the Capitol, all that hard worked hasn’t necessarily meant that anyone’s working together.
That was not the case in St. Paul during the last week, when DFL and GOP leadership hammered out a budget deal with a newly reengaged Gov. Tim Pawlenty and set about solving what looked to be a $1 billion budget shortfall. In return, vetoed Democratic bills were suddenly back on the table, Republicans got their property tax caps and spending cuts, and a couple of Pawlenty pet projects won out.
With a session that began with no small amount of political posturing over the I-35W bridge collapse, dominant and strongly partisan DFL majorities in both the House and Senate, and a governor who appeared at times to care much more about stumping for John McCain than guiding the state of Minnesota, the sudden harmony caught even some legislators by surprise.
“If we went back a month or two, this for me was the most subtly contentious session I’d ever been involved in,” David Senjem, a Republican from Rochester and Senate’s minority leader, said Monday after the session had adjourned, on time, with no special session required to balance the books. “My feeling was vice-presidential politics was what was going on there. [Democrats] were trying to take away the governor’s stature as a Minnesota leader.”
Certainly there were wide-ranging DFL efforts to paint Pawlenty as an absentee governor — a talking point parroted by many Democrats — but there was more than a little truth to some of the shots the governor was taking.
Early on in the session in February, the non-partisan and respected legislative auditor’s office released a report on findings of the bridge collapse that cast a rather damning shadow on the way MnDOT has been financed and operated in recent years after some three decades of bureaucratic ineptitude that came home to roost on Pawlenty’s watch. The report gave Democrats plenty of grist out of the gate.
But even in the face of that, Pawlenty never wavered in his support for Carol Molnau, lieutenant governor and the unconfirmed head of MnDOT. Democrats in the Senate moved swiftly to not confirm and effectively oust her from a post she was never qualified to have.
And the governor stood in his opposition to a $6.6 billion transportation/transit bill that included the first hike of the state’s gas tax in 20 years — even though funding roads and bridges was topic du jour well before lawmakers convened Feb. 12. Both tacks made him look either principled or smugly stubborn, depending on your view.
The Democrats did themselves no favors by entering the session either emboldened or arrogant — again, depending on your view.
With the help of a handful of Republicans — the so-called “override six” — who broke party ranks to overturn the governor’s veto of the transportation bill in the House, the DFL Party leadership took a risk that such a move would not be seen by constituents as a foolish tax-and-spend law. Not to mention petty power-playing. And when DFLers in the Senate in particular refused to come down to Pawlenty’s preferred $825 for a bonding bill — missing the mark by $100 million — the governor pushed back by cutting it down to $717 million, a lining out of 52 items.
Still, Pawlenty beamed at a press conference over the weekend announcing the budget agreement, remarking about the bipartisan efforts that went into shaping it. And House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, boasted that the session had been one of the most successful in a long time.
“It’s the most productive session we’ve had in at least a decade,” Rep. Tony Sertich, the DFLer from Chisholm who is the House majority leader, said Monday.
Win-win for Pawlenty and Republicans
Sertich, in fact, was calling from an airport in Mankato. The DFL leadership was flying around the state to tout the outcome to Minnesota voters.
Oh, right, voters. Who could forget? It’s an election year, after all, not just for the presidency, but for House members as well. They can go to their constituents, especially on the DFL side, and point to a record of accomplishment and compromise. Voters hate gridlock, you know.
And if Pawlenty is indeed VP material, this session is a score for him too. He can say he led Minnesota through a budget crunch (again) while working with DFL strongholds in both chambers. It’s not so hard to imagine — hypothetically, mind you — lawmakers and the guv agreeing to come together to save face come November.
“There was the art of compromise around the Capitol,” Sertich said.
But the nature of compromise, an old adage goes, is that all parties go away unsatisfied. That might not be true of Pawlenty.
“I’m trying to think of a thing the governor lost,” Senjem said, “and I can’t think of anything.”
The Republican leader might want to recall the override of the transportation veto (the early bitterness from that apparently dissipated in the waning days of the session, according to most accounts) as a time when Pawlenty was rebuked, if not defeated.
Then again, Pawlenty showed this session why he is the best politician in the state, and that includes the Washington delegation as well.
For starters, he can say his hands are clean on the gas tax, keeping his “no-new taxes” pledge relatively intact, if we look away from “fees,” of course. But at the same time, the state will get money for roads and bridges he knows Minnesota desperately needs.
On the bonding bill line-item veto for the Central Corridor light rail funding of $70 million, and a health-care reform bill that he vetoed, Pawlenty played a similar brand of politics. Going into the session, Pawlenty said he was theoretically in favor of both of those measures. (The health-care reform bill, in particular, came out of a task force that Pawlenty himself called for.)
But Pawlenty ditched out on both of them, only to revive them again after a budget deal came together. Many observers believe Pawlenty vetoed out of sincere misgivings, but it also didn’t hurt that he suddenly had bargaining chips come budget time. To that end, the governor managed to get an annual property-tax limit of 3.9 percent and a palatable figure of $60 million for Local Government Aid. Then he revisited and approved health care and the Central Corridor.
“The Central Corridor didn’t come up until 3 o’clock in the morning Saturday, when Margaret [Kelliher] asked, ‘What about the bonding bill?’ ” Senjem recalled. “And the governor shot back, ‘Well, what about it?’ “
Pawlenty also secured funding for two things he wanted: Money for a veteran’s home in Minneapolis and some $20 million for the state’s first park project in some 30 years, near Lake Vermillion.
“Did we get things we wanted? Yes,” said Tom Emmer, R-Delano. “Did we get everything? No. But [Pawlenty] got Democrats in both houses to agree to property tax caps. That’s incredible.”
It sure makes him look good on both sides of the aisle, and doesn’t hurt his bona fides should McCain choose him as a running mate. Pawlenty didn’t have to call a special session to balance the budget, nor did he have to “unallot” — unilaterally cutting funds already approved — by driving the state’s reserves from $655 million down to zero before he could start slashing.
“He probably had some interest in making sure he got some sort of agreement,” Senjem said.
And one other thing: The governor was Teflon Tim with regard to the bridge collapse. The notion that he and Molnau were somehow culpable to a degree vanished as soon as she was out of the picture.
DFLers can trumpet a victory, too
Everybody knew going in that the budget forecast was grim. A presession prediction put everyone on warning that carried over into Pawlenty’s State of the State address in St. Cloud Feb. 13, a day after the session began.
There, Pawlenty brought a stage prop: a plain old red pen. He called it the “taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen” and vowed to use it. But few expected him to use with the precision and force the governor actually wielded. When he trimmed $200 million out of a bonding bill, striking out $70 million for the Central Corridor line, it shook the Capitol.
No one took it harder than Rep. Alice Hausman, a DFLer from St. Paul, who had been carrying the bill in the House. Aside from the LRT line, St. Paul lost pretty much everything in the bill to Pawlenty’s “taxpayer protection pen.”
“Oh, it was so pointed,” Hausman said Monday, saying she thought the veto would effectively end the quest for $450 million in federal funds that were contingent on the state money. “I was discouraged in that I thought he’ll never do this. I was not called in to negotiate.”
Why did the guv stick it to St. Paul so badly? “I don’t know,” Hausman sighed. “Nobody really knows.”
But Central Corridor was to rise from the dead in the final hours, giving the Democrats something to savor.
In fact, despite Pawlenty’s mastery this session, the DFL has plenty to claim as victories as well, Central Corridor being just part of it.
“We were able to prioritize spending in a budget deficit,” Sertich said, ticking off education funding, property tax relief and health care reform as milestones. Is the DFL happy? “Absolutely. We did it by sticking to the basics.”
And let’s not forget that Dems got their transportation bill, with a little help from some moderate Republicans.
“The turning point for us for the session was the veto override,” Sertich continued. “It relieved that gridlock we had on that for some time, so we could focus on other things like health care reform.”
But the health care reform bill was vetoed, and sat dormant until the end of the session, when it became clear that the governor had essentially forced Democrats to play nice. The turning point for Republicans was the line-items in the bonding bill.
“The Senate was obnoxiously sticking to their figure,” Emmer said of the bonding bill. “The line-item vetoes on the capital investments bill set the tone. Then it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we thought he’d take down the whole bill or sign it.’ From his perspective, it was, ‘You guys aren’t listening to me.’ From then on, he was involved in those processes.”
Engaging the governor was the best thing the DFL leadership could have done down the home stretch, to, as Sertich put it, “help make for a smooth landing of the session and create success.” Besides, Democrats to a certain degree had a bully pulpit, and used it wisely: Sertich, Kelliher and Tarryl Clark, assistant majority leader in the Senate, all emerged as new wave of leaders at a time when the party really needed it in St. Paul.
Whether that plays out well in House elections in the fall remains to be seen. The fate of the override six come November has been talked about quite a bit, but no one seems to talk much about whether this session — and the gas tax in particular — will help the DFL in the campaign season or ensure some of the 85 DFL seats in the 134-member house will be lost.
“The voters will always remember the gas tax of 2008,” Senjem said. “Not sure how that will play out in the election.”
Regardless, DFLers can point to other triumphs, even if they don’t resonate with voters quite like the gas tax. “Overall the session was positive for me,” Hausman said. “For all the negative publicity around the bonding bill, we can claim victories for education and the environment and health care.”
For all the harmony — even Emmer, who is a conservative attack dog, singles out Kelliher and Sertich for their work in the negotiations — there’s still an unease creeping into future sessions.
Senjem in particular frets over the looming budget shortfall for fiscal year 2010-11. “Huge, huge, huge,” is how he put it Monday, though a Senate cheat sheet on the budget finagling concludes: “Leaves fiscal challenges for the next biennium: $946 million shortfall before inflation; $2 billion including inflation.”
“That will probably be our hardest session of all,” Senjem concluded, worrying in partisanship about a lack of job creation and an increase in social programs. “The Democrats will have an insatiable need for taxes and that’s not gonna happen in our view. It could be a train wreck.”
The House public information services sent out a notice Monday that the House is in session again on Jan. 6, 2009.
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.