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Why can’t DFL legislators get their act together on a budget plan?

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.”

Sen. David Senjem
Sen. David Senjem

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.

Rep. Tony Sertich
Rep. Tony Sertich

“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.

Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller
Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller

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
Sen. Dick Cohen

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.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/23/2009 - 09:20 am.

    Senate DFL – “Tax and Spend”
    House DFL – “Spend and Tax”
    So much for change?

  2. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 03/23/2009 - 10:55 am.

    I am disappointed that the legislature is not utilizing the budget crisis in MN to create a truly progressive tax system & instead is relying on accounting shifts. There is a clear structural deficit using accounting shifts only prolongs the misery. Our governmental bodies need to be leaders in transparency and good business practices and not using measures that got our financial system in such a mess.

    Lead by example please. Expand the sales tax to services, create an upper bracket for households making over $250,000 and eliminate the state income tax on people making less than $30,000 a year. Finally, work to ensure that communities have other resources than property tax revenues to meet their needs. That would give us a progressive tax system.

    By the way, this is about investing in our people, our infrastructure and our systems to make sure this cold northern state remains competitive & accessible in our global marketplace. The truth is that the recent strategy of lower state taxes has led to economic stagnation in our state because of the burden on localities and the failure to invest in our youth and our infrastructure. Tax to invest in the common good.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/23/2009 - 11:22 am.

    Ron’s framed the strategic goal perfectly; it’s the tactical method that is up in the air.

    Both the Democrat House and Senate caucuses have the same sausage in mind; it’s how they are going to hide the production process that they are hashing out.

    The sausage making the DFL is faced with hiding from the public is foisting billions of dollars in taxes on a population that considers a pay cut “dodging a bullet” in their own finances.

    They’re realize that the majority of Minnesotan’s know they can’t afford a ticket to the DFL barbecue, which is why they are test marketing “revenue” brand tax increases to fund “investment” brand special interest spending.

    I wish I could say with confidence that what ever the package says, my fellow Minnesotan’s will recognize what the sausage is stuffed with; but in light of the fact that so many people bought Al Franken’s “satire” brand last year, sadly, I have to admit that I have my doubts.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/23/2009 - 11:51 am.

    I’m wondering why you used quotation marks around the word “need” in “Both the Senate and the House are talking about the ‘need’ to be responsible and raise taxes.”

    The governor is so firmly wedded (no divorce possible) to the anti-tax, anti-government agenda of Grover Norquist that he has used his power as governor to refuse for 7 years to roll back the 1999 and 2000 tax cuts THAT HAVE COST US A BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR IN REVENUE.

    No doubt about it. Raising taxes is the only responsible thing to do. This is no time for the entire state to honor one’s person’s ideology when the need to forego it is inescapable.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 03/23/2009 - 12:58 pm.

    I still remain amazed that voices from the right have the nerve to even comment. The Pawlenty/Bush philosophy of “lower spending begets a better economy” has just proven to be a spectacular failure. The trickle down never happened for middle income folks as salaries stagnated during this period and now we have a Minnesota that is lagging the nation in economic terms. But that’s just the start of the bad news. That bastion of Republicanism and right wing thinking-Wall Street- and in particular the banks and financial companies proved that they were reckless and incompetent and to a mild recession we added a catastrophe that has cost many innocent people in Minnesota their jobs. A third disaster was going to war in Iraq and de-stabilizing that region and a fourth problem was not paying for it. Now we have reaped what we have sowed. We have not paid for the basics of our Minnesota lifestyle for years and the above catastrophies make it impossible now. Please Republicans the right comment is “I’m sorry” not “Tax and spend and other slogan based criticism” and criticizing people’s votes for chjange via Franken.

  6. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 03/23/2009 - 01:25 pm.

    If you think Washington Congressional politics is a circus, take a look at MN legislative politics. It should be in the center ring of the big top!

    Neither political party has a strong commanding leadership. They are like ships on the Lakes floundering rudderless without direction. No one has come to the forefront with a decisive solid fiscal plan for the state’s long term. No one has had the where with all or courage to present plans for reforming and/or restructuring state governance.

    At present, without strong central leadership coming from the governor’s office or the legislature Minnesota is a three-ring political circus with St.Paul’s Capitol Hill as the venue. The main attraction to this circus are the elected public officials who seem to agree to disagree; to practice political correctness to absurdity; and, to react fiscal crises with short term expediency without looking for the long term future stability.

    The political main event of this circus is a indigenous gallimauphry of idiocy that MN doesn’t need to exhibit. We need dynamic and forthright state political leadership or this state will be in the cauldron of bankruptcy soon,

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/23/2009 - 05:32 pm.

    I don’t get all the surprise. Having two houses is one of the checks and balances built into our form of government. Seems to me this is just government functioning as designed. It’s also unreasonable to expect a legislative body to have the same unity as the executive branch.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/23/2009 - 09:50 pm.

    Me thinks the good Gov is expertly playing off the forces in the Dems party against one another and they are taking his bait.ie, lat weeks mtg with the Range DFL lads over common interests. This group of DFLer’s is far from progressive although I certainlty wish they were. It’s seems to be lip service only.

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