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All but one key Minnesota political leader lobbying hard on stimulus plans

Despite his budget-balancing plan hinging on a $920 million infusion of federal money, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not actively lobbying for the stimulus package.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

With a major exception, political leaders throughout the state are lobbying Congress to pass a stimulus package — preferably the House version — as soon as possible.

The exception is Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Despite the fact that his budget-balancing plan assumes a $920 million infusion of federal money directly into the state’s general fund, the governor is not in a lobbying mode, according to his spokesman, Brian McClung.

Pawlenty’s stand is dramatically different from the one being taken by a fellow Republican governor, Florida’s Charlie Crist, who appeared today with President Obama to urge Congress to pass a stimulus package.

Crist, according to a New York Times report, has gone so far as to lobby Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican, to support the package which he firmly opposes.

“Governor Pawlenty believes the stimulus package includes too much wasteful spending and is not focused enough on job creation and solving the underlying problems in the housing markets,” McClung said in a statement e-mailed to MinnPost this morning. “We are responding to requests from our congressional delegation for information about projects or programs, but we are not lobbying for the bill.”

Governor won’t turn down federal money
That does not, however, mean that the governor would turn down any Washington money.

“Minnesota will accept stimulus money,” McClung continued, “because our state pays much more to the federal government than we receive in return. We have also taken steps within our administration to prepare to effectively and efficiently utilize federal funds when they are made available.”

Pawlenty’s hands-off position comes, despite him offering a budget that assumes the state would receive about $3 billion from the feds, with $920 million of that, he assumes, available to help fill the $4.8 billion hole in the state budget. At the time of his budget presentation, he described as “conservative” the numbers he was assuming the state would receive from the feds.

Meantime, most state politicians — or at least DFL politicians — are hoping that any stimulus bill that comes out of a House-Senate conference committee will look more like the bill that was passed in the House of Representatives last month. That’s because the House bill is far more generous in getting money to the states.

State Rep. Loren Solberg
State Rep. Loren Solberg

State Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said that his preliminary views of spreadsheets shows a huge difference in states funds between the U.S. House and Senate stimulus packages.

Overall, said Solberg, the House version would send $80 billion to the states. The Senate version would send out $39 billion.

What would that mean in Minnesota?

“It looks like the federal money that could go into the general fund would be down from $920 million to $500 million,” Solberg said.

In other words, that would mean the governor would have to come up with another $420 million to balance his proposed budget.

Most federal funds will have strings attached
The difference between the total dollars the state would receive and the amount available for the general fund occurs because most of the federal money would be specifically targeted for building schools, roads and bridges. Those dollars, Solberg said, could only be used in addition to money the state already has budgeted for such projects.

Solberg and other DFL legislators are keeping the phone lines busy between St. Paul and Minnesota’s congressional delegation in Washington, lobbying for a stimulus package, especially a package that looks like that one the House is promoting. 

“I think he (Pawlenty) should be out there lobbying for the most we can get,” said Solberg. “But I can’t pick up the phone and advise him what to do.”

Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, the assistant majority leader, is surprised — and a little disturbed — by the governor’s passive position on stimulus funds.

Sen. Tarryl Clark
Sen. Tarryl Clark

“I think Charlie Crist has the right idea,” Clark said. “This is about getting people back to work again. This needs the support of governors around the country. He (Pawlenty) seems to send real mixed messages. We need him to be focusing on the problems of what’s going on in Minnesota.”

Like most local political leaders, Clark sees more in the House package than the Senate proposal but is staying positive about both.

“This isn’t just about our budget,” she said. “Health care is on the line, jobs and so many other things associated with the recession.”

State legislators hope to get a better understanding of the Pawlenty administration’s view of federal stimulus funds when Tom Hanson — the commissioner of Budget and Management as well as the state’s federal stimulus coordinator — meets Thursday with the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy.

“The governor relies on federal funding to make up at least 25 percent of his proposed budget,” said House Speaker Margaret Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, in an e-mail. “So it’s pretty clear he’s counting on Congress to work out an agreement with President Obama. I also expect the governor to be open and transparent with Minnesotans about his administration’s plans to spend those federal dollars. We’ll have plenty of questions for Commissioner Hanson.”  

Minnesota municipalities, too, have a lot at stake in the stimulus package. Mayors from Minnesota cities appear to share the view of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who, through his spokesman Jeremy Hanson, expressed relief that the stimulus package is moving forward.

The House bill, Hanson said, would contain a few extra millions for cities, he said, but the Senate proposal “has a lot in there that will be helpful to cities.” He specifically cited funds for transportation projects  and block grants for energy-efficiency projects that would both put people to work and strengthen urban infrastructure.

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Representatives of the League of Cities from all over the country spent more than an hour today in a conference call going over the differences between the House and Senate versions of the stimulus package.
Which is better?

The League likes the idea that the House package that includes more money for the states, said Jim Miller of the Minnesota League of Cities. Anything that helps the states with their budget problems can turn out to be helpful to the cities.

But there is a transportation aspect of the Senate bill that is appealing to the cities. The Senate would require 40 percent of the transportation money in the package to go directly to local governments. Several large-city mayors were meeting today with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, hoping to see that language come out of the conference committee.

“In the end, our interests are identical to the states,” said Miller. “Anything that helps revitalize the economy helps our cities.” 

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