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DFL legislators keep hearing that dreaded four-letter word: When?

When?

It happened again Thursday. The Minnesota House was meeting in full session, running through some routine business,  when Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, rose, cleared his throat and said to DFLers, “We’ve been here a month; why are we still waiting for your budget proposal?”

There were some head shakes, but no response. The House got back to the business at hand.

Emmer’s question has become the mantra of state Republicans. In every public forum, at least one or two Republican legislators raise the question: If DFL legislators don’t like Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget, why don’t they come up with one of their own?

“It’s strategic,” said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, of the Republican cry. “It’s designed to freak people out on our side, and it takes attention off the governor’s budget.”

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Chant is historically popular no matter who’s in office
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Republican chant is not only strategic, it’s historically predictable:  Whoever is out of power points the finger at the other party. 

But both Pogemiller and Kelliher say that Republicans ask that “where’s-your-budget?” question only in public. In private meetings among DFL and Republican leadership, the rhetoric is dropped. 

Still, it seems like a worthy question.

Coming into the session, all knew the state’s financial situation was a red-ink mess, which is expected to get worse when a new round of financial predictions come out next month. Why weren’t DFLers prepared to move immediately with their own budget proposals?

Pogemiller said the Legislature ALWAYS works from the governor’s budget proposal.

“We don’t even have complete drafts of his bill yet,” he said. “When we get the full proposal, we will work off what he has. You see what’s doable and where there might be disagreement.”

Kelliher notes that the governor had all of the state’s commissioners and finance experts working on the budget for months. The Legislature does not have those resources.

“He’s had 7½ months. It’s unrealistic to expect us to respond in just a few days,” she said.

Both DFL leaders did express surprise over the budget plan Pawlenty has proposed — particularly that it seems to do little to address financial problems beyond the coming biennium.

“Seventy-one percent of his solution is one-time money,” said Kelliher. “That is simply not sustainable. It only means we’ll be back here next year and the year after that facing the same problem.”

She was highly critical of the governor’s plan to sell $1 billion in appropriations bonds to deal with part of the budget problem. (The governor calls this “tobacco money,” though it’s not.)

“That’s the last approach you’d tell a family that’s in a financial crisis to do,” Kelliher said of the plan to sell bonds to pay debt. “You don’t take on more debt to pay debt.”

DFLers suggesting deeper cuts?
Surprisingly, Pogemiller, a classic Minneapolis liberal, said he didn’t think the governor made deep enough cuts in the budget he’s proposed. Pogemiller held up the sacred cow of state government spending on public education.

“When K-12 is 40 percent of the budget, I don’t see how you can hold it harmless (as the governor proposes),” Pogemiller said. “I know I’m going to take knocks for this, but it just can’t be done.”

A moment for speculation here: Pogemiller’s comment about cutting K-12 funding smells a little fishy. It’s highly unlikely that Pogemiller really would favor cutting K-12 spending. It’s more probable that this is his way of saying the governor will have to accept some tax increases to hold K-12 harmless and to balance the budget.

Pogemiller and other DFL senators have come up with a magic number — 13.5 percent — to show  how deep spending cuts would have to go if the state is to cut its way out of the current budget crisis. That would mean 13.5 percent out of everything, including such relatively popular things such as K-12 education,  veterans programs,  public safety,  the judiciary and the  environment.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller

This 13.5 percent number may be the DFL’s way of saying that the state budget cannot be balanced without some form of tax increases, because 13.5 percent across-the-board cuts would not be acceptable to most Minnesotans.

Though not clearly stated, there appear to be two guiding principles to the DFL’s approach to the this budget process: “shared sacrifice”  and “sustainability.”  Both could be euphemisms for tax increases.

Yes, DFLers admit, it may be necessary to cut the Health and Human Services budget. But those cuts can’t be as deep as Pawlenty has proposed. If the poor are to take a hit, then, the DFL will say it’s reasonable to expect that the richest in Minnesota also should be expected to “share in the sacrifice” by paying higher taxes.

One-time fixes in recent years have not fixed anything. In fact, each biennium, the deficit problem gets bigger. The state will have a “sustainable” budget only if it raises more revenues and make cuts. 

But how — and when– will all of this unfold?  At what point will DFLers stop poking holes in the Pawlenty proposal and come forward with their own ideas?

Both Kelliher and Pogemiller say that process already has begun and that even their harshest critics, like Emmer, know it.

In both the House and Senate, there are finance committees that correspond to the state’s major agencies. Each of those committees is gathering information on the financial needs of the respective agencies. As time goes on, the chairpersons of those committees will meet with House and Senate leaders to talk about agency needs and what is financially possible.

DFL budget plan will evolve
Hearings with the public also will be held. Sometime, before the Easter break in early April, after a considerable exchange of information between leadership and members of the committees, financial “targets” will be set. It’s only then that the DFLers will have developed a contrasting plan to the governor’s budget proposal.

In a break from tradition, Pogemiller said he’s invited Republican leaders to sit in on the “target” conversations between Senate leadership and committee leadership.

“They’re considering the offer,” Pogemiller said.

Though Kelliher said she plans to bring the whole caucus into the target-setting discussion, typically, in the end, it is Senate and House leaders who make the big target decisions, a reality that rankles many members.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, sees other weaknesses in the system, ones that are particularly glaring when the state is in crisis, as it is now.

Sen. John Marty
Sen. John Marty

The committee approach to problem solving means that the Legislature lacks a macro view of state issues, Marty said. Instead, legislators tend to view the state’s issues through the narrow prism of their own committee work. A lack of a big perspective only adds to the governor’s already-great power in the budget process.

“We start with what he comes out with,” Marty said. “So he starts with the bold statement ‘No new taxes.’ We (DFLers) argue for a while that that’s not realistic, but in the end we say, ‘Oh heck, we surrender,’ and we keep moving closer to his end of the playing field. We seem to forget that he needs the budget balanced as much as we do.”

And still another problem, in Marty’s view, is the fact that after all the public hearings and public committee meetings, most of the vitally important target meetings are held behind closed doors. Marty introduced legislation on Tuesday that would open those doors to the media and the public.

“I have people say, ‘But if we open it up, I won’t be able to speak frankly,”’ Marty said. “And I say to that, ‘You mean, you can’t speak frankly to the people of Minnesota?’ ”

To date, there probably hasn’t been much public frankness. Rather, we’ve seen the same old game of  DFLers and Republicans pointing fingers at each other.

But Pogemiller insists most of that is just political theater.

“There’s a lot of bipartisan work being done here,” he said. “We all understand the severity of the problem.”

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 (10)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/06/2009 - 11:08 am.

    “Surprisingly, Pogemiller, a classic Minneapolis liberal, said he didn’t think the governor made deep enough cuts in the budget he’s proposed. Pogemiller held up the sacred cow of state government spending on public education.”

    Are we really surprised? That the governor is a clever political tactician?

    Senator Pogemiller knows what we all know, that there will be no additional revenue this session without the support of the governor, and that the new budgetary forecast will project an additional couple of billion dollars to the deficit.

    By refusing to address the financial crisis this state faces with any seriousness at all, Governor Pawlenty is hoping to shift blame resulting from the tough choice we have to make to the Democrats.

    In these difficult times, what we are getting from this governor isn’t political leadership, it’s political games. That’s the truth, and Democrats should be saying it a lot.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/06/2009 - 11:11 am.

    If the governor and the Republican legislators truly believe that they have given us a serious budget, why do they think the DFL needs to provide an alternative?

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 02/06/2009 - 11:35 am.

    I’m not so sure Pogemiller is just playing games when he says k-12 might get cut. Sounds like he’s just doing the math, that 40% of the budget won’t be just untouchable. In fact, Pawlenty in his state of the state left almost everything untouchable. And he left taxes untouchable. All he’s offered is gimmicks and deep cuts in social spending, and even at that the budget doesn’t balance. That DFLers are starting out saying things they want to protect are going to get cut, that should underline the seriousness of the situation. That upper class tax increases are considered impossible is just faith-based budgeting.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/06/2009 - 02:50 pm.

    “I’m not so sure Pogemiller is just playing games when he says k-12 might get cut.”

    Pogemiller is most assuredly not playing games when he says K-12 will get cut. Such cuts border on the inevitable when we are looking at a five which is soon to be 7 billion dollar deficit.

    The governor has given the legislature the choice of protecting or elderly, or protecting our children. I understand why the governor doesn’t want to make these politically difficult decisions. I just don’t understand why he is proud of it.

    And quite frankly, I don’t understand the journalistic convention that holds that those who make the tough decisions, however reluctantly, are the moral and political of those who eagerly duck them.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/06/2009 - 03:14 pm.

    sniff…sniff…yup, I smell a rat.

    For Pogemiller, a guy that no doubt has an EdMN logo tattooed somewhere on his body, to propose cuts to public education is laughable.

    But if the Governor is smart, and he is, he’ll have his people working on just that right now.

    This is an opportunity for the Governor to do the school districts a big favor by shining a bright light on where k-12 money ends up.

    At a time when we are all working more hours, and many of us have taken cuts in salaries, highlighting the “auto-pilot” pay raise system that the unions have instituted will make blood boil, especially if contrasted against a background of the absolutely dismal test and graduation rates in districts that are receiving the lion’s share of funding.

    I can guarantee it will get people thinking twice about the “sanctity” of untouchable, ever increasing k-12 funding.

    Mad taxpayers and parents are the only force strong enough to stand up against Education Minnesota, the #1 largest source of PAC money flowing to (mostly Democrat) legislators by a mile.

    It’s high time we get some of that “Change we can believe in” around here.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/06/2009 - 04:26 pm.

    “For Pogemiller, a guy that no doubt has an EdMN logo tattooed somewhere on his body, to propose cuts to public education is laughable.”

    Laughability aside, that’s what’s being proposed.

    “This is an opportunity for the Governor to do the school districts a big favor by shining a bright light on where k-12 money ends up.”

    That’s the downside of the governor’s gamesmanship. Our governor is on the record as favoring an increase in state aid to education. He can’t really turn around and then argue the money is being wasted.

    I don’t know whether Sen. Pogemiller has an EdMn tattoo anywhere on his person. I confess, I have a school district tattoo somewhere on my own. But even I understand (and it’s from long and bitter experience) that’s there is nothing sacred about school district funding.

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/07/2009 - 07:03 am.

    The governor’s “increase” in education spending is only to cover expansion of his unsuccessful Q-comp program. Both the program AND his increase could be taken out of the budget. As could his giveaways to large corporations. (But keep help for small business and startups.)

    I’d like to see the feds direct recovery funds to the cities and counties without going through the administrations of governors like Pawlenty and Schwartzenegger, but withhold it from any state government that refuses to establish (or re-establish) progressive taxation in order to raise revenue. The anti-tax ideology has failed and it is way past time to recognize that.

  8. Submitted by Rod Loper on 02/08/2009 - 07:56 pm.

    At last we have the answer from the sage of the Center for the American Experiment, Pearlstein.
    Republicans can volunteer for food shelves (faith-
    based), fund private schools (probably not Tiza)
    and Democrats can write checks. The rich can go to their enclaves in Florida and the Caribbean
    until we need to send the marines to evacuate these patriots.

  9. Submitted by Howard Salute on 02/09/2009 - 12:17 pm.

    I realize we have part-time legislators and the pay for these positions is nominal. So they must have other “real” jobs/careers to provide for themselves and their family. It would help me understand these leaders better if I knew what their “real” work background is. Does anyone know how Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Larry Pogemiller, and John Marty earn a living?

  10. Submitted by Daniel Fanning on 02/11/2009 - 01:36 am.

    Further proof that we need to elect Senator John Marty for Gov in 2010. That’s the kind of bold, brave, and visionary leader we need in MN!

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