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.”
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.
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.
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.