You’d think that Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be just about all of the opposition DFLers need in this legislative session.
But it appears that before the DFL majorities in the House and Senate can ever get around to tussling with the governor over how to repair the state’s budget woes, they’re going to have some bloody matches with each other.
The Senate and the House each now have come forward with their own very different budget plans, which in turn are different from the governor’s plan.
Given they have control of both houses, wouldn’t it have made sense for the DFL to have a unifed plan to counter Pawlenty’s? Given the fact that they’ve already got a tough enough product to sell to Minnesotans – both the House and Senate agree that taxes need to be raised – shouldn’t they now be trying to spend their time marketing the idea to the public that paying more taxes is a good thing for us?
“I’m surprised they aren’t together,” said Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, the Senate minority leader. “But actually, this is just a carryover from before the session even started. You would think that when the chips are down, they would have a more unified approach.”
Split DFL empowers GOP minority
These inter-caucus, inter-chamber DFL struggles are a gift to Senjem and his fellow Republicans. It gives the Republican minority, which is standing firmly behind Pawlenty, more power than it expected at this point in the session.
Why doesn’t the DFL have its act together?
DFL leaders dispute the premise. They say there is constant communication between House and Senate leaders and the heads of House and Senate committees.
“We don’t have a parliamentary system,” said Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, the assistant majority leader of the Senate. “We have separate bodies with different ideas. If journalists would turn the story around, you could argue that we (the House and the Senate) have more in common than differences. We have balanced budgets. We have real cuts. We have revenue (tax increases) in there. We both have responsible use of one-time money.”
Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, the House majority leader, also disputes the notion that in this difficult year the DFL should have a unified plan by this point in the legislative session.
“That sounds more like a political strategy than governing,” Sertich said. “… We have strategies, of course. But I still believe that the more ideas that we consider, the better. Eventually, we will get together, but I believe that considering many ideas is the best approach.”
On the surface, that sounds good. The Legislature does represent the many voices of the people of the state.
But there’s a difference between representing different voices and chaos. And, for the moment, the DFL seems to be leaning toward the chaos end of the spectrum, especially in the Senate, where caucus members are openly questioning the budget proposal being promoted most strongly by Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis.
Whose plan: Pogemiller or Senate caucus?
The Senate plan calls for cuts of about 7 percent across the state government board. It’s a plan that Pogemiller advocated long before it was debated by the DFL caucus. In fact, to some in the caucus, it feels more like a Pogemiller plan than a caucus plan. Some of the cuts — a 7 percent cut for K-12 education, for example — make no sense to many DFLers in the Senate and certainly not to many DFLers in the House.
DFLers speculate that not even Pogemiller believes in the plan. Rather, they think he’s got an end-game in mind that he’s keeping close to the vest. The House DFL budget proposal holds K-12 spending harmless.
In fact, the House version of how to deal with K-12 funding is more similar to the governor’s plan than the Senate DFLers’ version. Pawlenty actually wants to add money to K-12 funding. The House would hold K-12 funding harmless.
There’s one other similarity between the Pawlenty and House approach to the $4.6 billion budget deficit. Both would use that favorite old gimmick — accounting shifts — to help fill the budget hole. (Pawlenty’s approach calls for $1.2 billion in accounting shifts; the House figure approaches $1.7 billion.)
This is not to suggest that, overall, Pawlenty and the House are anywhere close to agreement on how to deal with the state’s problems.
Pawlenty’s budget for the 2010-11 biennium is front-loaded with one-time maneuvers —accounting shifts, selling bonds for immediate cash and, of course, federal stimulus money — as well as $2.4 billion in cuts. His plan for the “out” years, 2012-13, seems to be little more than pulling numbers out of the air.
Overall, the govenor’s approach seems to mostly succeed in ensuring continued state financial problems two years down the line, which has many believing that he has no intention of running for a third term.
Pawlenty approach has some wondering if he’ll seek third term
“Why would he consider coming back (for a third term) with what he’s going to leave behind?” asked Clark. “… Holding your breath is not a strategy for dealing with a serious problem. But that’s what he seems to want to do, hold his breath for two more years.”
It’s fairly easy for DFLers to take shots at Pawlenty.
“What’s good for your political base is not good for the state,” said Clark of the Pawlenty approach to the deficit.
But, it should be noted that Pawlenty isn’t the only player in the process whose personal political agenda may be involved in charting the state’s fiscal future.
ALL members of the House and Senate are up for re-election in 2010. That means all members are making decisions based on what they think they can sell back in their home districts.
And some key legislative members already have announced they have higher aspirations than returning to the Legislature. For example, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, chairman of the powerful taxes committee, has announced he’s running for governor. That means he’s likely to be more independent of DFL leadership than he might be in other years.
All these personal agendas make it even more difficult for the DFL to present a united front against the Pawlenty plan.
Both houses stress need for responsibility
Both the Senate and the House are talking about the “need” to be responsible and raise taxes. The House plan calls for revenue increases of $1.5 billion for the next biennium; the Senate wants $2 billion in increases. But neither body has even made it clear what taxes they would increase.
Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the Finances Committee, admits the DFL has to get its own business in order before confronting Pawlenty directly.
“We have to resolve differences between the House and the Senate that aren’t insignificant,” Cohen said.
He also added that it’s easier for one governor to be “united” than it is for two legislative bodies.
“He’s one of one,” said Cohen. “In the Senate, you’re one of many. We have to work through that.”
Then, the Senate will have to work through the House, where there are ever more voices. At this point, DFLers have a whole lot of talking to do with each other before they even consider trying to have a chat with Pawlenty.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.