Minnesota’s already-raucous budget debate moves to the ‘kitchen table’

Gov. Tim Pawlemty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Apparently, every politician in the state thinks that Minnesotans do all their talking around the kitchen table.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Republican and DFL legislative leaders all spoke passionately today of kitchen-table conversations between hubby and wife while discussing the state’s ever-increasing budget deficit.

The governor started it. Moments into his State of the State speech, which was delivered to a joint session of the Legislature in the House chambers Thursday noon, he was talking about the kitchen table.

“Imagine a typical Minnesota kitchen table,” he said. “A mom and dad have just tucked the kids into bed with a kiss and a prayer and they come back to the table to confront economic reality.”

The only way to help those kitchen-table people, the governor believes, is to not only not increase their taxes but to DECREASE taxes on Minnesota businesses.

After the speech, Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud and assistant majority leader, also turned to the kitchen table.

Sen. Tarryl Clark
Sen. Tarryl Clark

“There was a lot of talk about the people around the kitchen table,” she said, “but there was little talk about how to help those people around the kitchen table.”

Governor, legislative leadership far apart
Like most DFLers,  Clark believe that the state can balance its budget only through a series of governmental cuts AND new revenue streams (in the main, taxes).

After listening to DFLers pound on the governor’s speech, the Republican minority leader, Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, also talked about the kitchen table.

When hubby and wife are sitting around the kitchen table and hubby says, “I lost my job today. What’s the first thing they’re concerned about?” Senjem said. “Finding another job.”

Sen. David Senjem
Sen. David Senjem

That was Senjem’s way of saying that the only way out of this deficit mess is to create jobs in Minnesota by cutting business taxes.

With all the attention to kitchen tables, somebody in state government — before he or she gets laid off — needs to do a study about how many people actually sit down and talk at the kitchen table. What of single people? Single parents? Old people living alone? Hubbys and wives so busy hustling their kids off to hockey practice or working the graveyard shift that they do all their talking by cell phone?

There was, of course, a little more than kitchen-table talk in the governor’s speech and reaction to it.

Pawlenty does say the way to get out of this deficit mess is to cut taxes. He proposed a series of tax cuts for businesses and increases in K-12 education funding that DFLers say would increase the current $4.8 billion budget deficit to something in the neighborhood of $6 billion. Without being specific, Pawlenty made it clear that he’d balance the budget with huge hacks out of the Health and Human Services budget that runs to about $11 billion per biennium, or roughly a third of the state’s budget.

Republicans praise Pawlenty’s proposals
Not surprisingly, Republicans raved about the governor’s proposals.

“I found the governor’s message realistic and uplifting,” said Rep. Marty Seifert, the House minority leader from Marshall.

Rep. Marty Seifert
Rep. Marty Seifert

But Seifert was distressed by two things: the lack of applause the governor received from DFLers during the speech and “the partisan press conference” the DFLers held after the speech.

Oh, how he lambasted the DFLers for their partisanship and the unkind things they had to say about the governor’s speech. In a post-speech news conference, Seifert delivered the line of the day. He said that DFLers talking about budget responsibility “is like Bernie Madoff giving Tom Petters a lecture on austerity.”

Come to think of it, the one-liner did have a partisan ring to it.

In fact, Pawlenty’s speech was well delivered — he used teleprompters. But it was deeply partisan.

Even his proposals for increasing K-12 funding were tied to his Q Comp program, which is supposed to pay small bonuses to teachers whose students perform well.

Mixed messages on education
The governor seems to be of many minds when it comes to the people who educate our children.

There’s this: “Minnesota can be proud that we’re at or near the top in the country on many education measures,” he said in his speech.

Does that mean he really likes Minnesota teachers? Well …He wants the Legislature to pass something called “The Teacher Transformation Act.”

“We have minimum requirements for pharmacists, dentists, engineers and just about every other profession,” the governor said.  “We should have minimum entrance standards for people who do our most important job: educating our children.”

That would seem to indicate he doesn’t think much of current teachers.

Back and forth he went on teachers, at one point saying that they need to give up the right to strike in labor negotiations.

But almost certainly, the most confrontational point he made regarding education is his belief that Minnesota should “align the money we spend with the results we expect.” That means money would go to successful schools, while those schools that are struggling would take cuts.

Rep. Alice Hausman
Rep. Alice Hausman

To Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, that message about educational “success”  underscored the prevailing theme in the governor’s speech.

“It was all about winners and losers, and he doesn’t care about the losers,” she said. “This was a very mean-spirited speech toward the least among us.”

She was cringing at the thought of what would happen to already-challenged schools if a Pawlenty education plan were adopted. And she was indignant about what the governor seems to have in mind for Health and Human Services. Given his proposals that add to the deficit, the governor must be looking at a minimum of a 20 percent whack out of Human Services, she indicated.

“He’s brillant in talking about these things,” said Hausman. “Unless you don’t know the background, you’ll say, ‘He’s right. We should make these cuts.’ But every line of that budget he cuts represents real people who are going to be hurt. I think this speech was all about him running for president and not about the people of Minnesota.”

Of course, this was just the preliminary speech in advance of the main budget address, which the governor is expected to deliver at the end of the month.

At that time, Pawlenty will have to attach numbers to the business tax cuts he proposed in what he called the Minnesota Jobs Recovery Act. He wants to reduce the state’s 9.8 percent business tax to 4.8 percent over the next six years. He wants a 25 percent refundable tax credit for small-business owners who reinvest in their business “quickly.” He wants a 100 percent sales tax exemption for equipment purchased for businesses. He wants a $50 million package of tax credits “for small-business job creation.”

The list was jaw-dropping for DFLers, who were hearing the state’s deficit grow with every word Pawlenty uttered.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher

“We were looking to the governor for leadership,” said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. “The governor’s answer was to make the problem worse.”

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, who has tried hard to tone down his antipathy for Pawlenty, was having a tough time holding back his feelings after the governor’s speech.

The Minneapolis DFLer kept interrupting his fellow House and Senate leaders in the DFL’s post-speech news conference.

“I’m sorry,” he’d say, when someone else was trying to speak, “but I’ve got to say …”

Then he’d burst out with words such as “gimmick” and “rhetoric” to describe Pawlenty’s speech. Then, he’d say, “I’m sorry,” again and step back from the microphone, only to bounce forward again.  He seemed particularly upset about the fact that it appears that when Pawlenty does come forward with his budget, Local Government Aid will be all but eliminated.

“That’s public safety … I’m sorry,” he said. He stepped back in line again.

But this was the day of the governor’s speech, so he should have the last word.

He wants all the legislators to gather together “at the kitchen table” to work through the problems. If they do gather, they may have to throw out just about everything but the kitchen sink to balance the budget.

But obviously, the kitchen table is the key to Minnesota’s future.

“As I close,” Pawlenty said, “let’s go back to that Minnesota kitchen table. Yes, there’s fear and worry at that table, but there’s also hope and optimism. In our own modest way, Minnesotans have a confidence that we can find a way and make it work …”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/16/2009 - 10:33 am.

    Thank you Mr. Pawlety for putting the people who pay the taxes first. Thank you for giving hope to those who resist the ever increasing cost of government.

    We already know what the people who believe in growing government will say…”we need to tax more and spend more.” So much for change.

  2. Submitted by Reggie McGurt on 01/16/2009 - 10:44 am.

    I’m confused, the gov wants to fund Q Comp, but also pass legislation to freeze all teachers wages (since teachers work for government entities that accept state funding). How will that work?

    As I commented on another post yesterday, I’m pretty worried if this is all the governor has got. Everything laid out in his plan are feel-good, symbolic gestures that won’t put any kind of a dent in the deficit – in fact they appear to only increase the deficit!

    It looks to me that Pass-the-buck Pawlenty is going to (once again) avoid any tough decisions. He’ll force the tough choices onto local governments, MNSCU and the legislature. He’s shown once again that he’ll leave the heavy lifting to others.

  3. Submitted by Jennifer Tuder on 01/16/2009 - 11:04 am.

    Actually, I think the governor is thinking of his presidential run and potential corporate donor list rather than individual tax payers. This plan is ludicrous and he knows it. It’s the beginning of a bargaining ploy designed to make the DFL-run legislature look foolish and spendthrift. The truth is, state agencies are cut to the bone and those tax cuts aren’t keeping pace with inflation and rising health costs, the two biggest factors in the higher cost of government.

    On a different note, I would like to request that the governor stop posing as my sensible Dad trying to tighten the family belt around the kitchen table. Paternal poses and a condescending tone are not going to get us out of this mess. Please, Governor Pawlenty, show us more leadership and less posturing.

  4. Submitted by Mike Kluznik on 01/17/2009 - 02:29 am.

    Gee whiz, by golly, oh boy I listened to most of Gov. Pawlenty’s State of the State address. Gees by golly, he sure sounded earnest, like a Boy Scout on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout attempting to earn a merit badge in public speaking. Gee whiz, he sounded like an all-American boy.
    Did Minnesota really elect this guy as governor, or did he just drop out of the sky after having been kidnapped by aliens and held for two weeks while they did lab tests on him?
    Has he ever taken public speaking lessons? Is he the best we can do? It was truly embarrassing to listen to Gov. Erstwhile stand and deliver.

  5. Submitted by John Olson on 01/17/2009 - 05:53 am.

    Expect a train wreck that begins in May and lasts until who-knows-when.

    This will be 1981 all over again in terms of multiple special sessions, acrimony, strikes, etc. I think Jennifer is correct…the Gov. was playing (or at least thinks he was) to others for a future role elsewhere.

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