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Politicians’ Minnesota budget standoff makes for unsettling breakfast fare

Over eggs and orange juice, members of the Chamber of Commerce this morning got to listen in on the fundamental budget debate being waged at the state Capitol.

Over eggs and orange juice, members of the Chamber of Commerce this morning got to listen in on the fundamental budget debate being waged at the state Capitol.

When it was over, most of the 140 people gathered probably left the St. Paul Hotel gathering with a serious acid reflux problem.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, DFL legislative leaders Sen. Larry Pogemiller and Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Republican leaders Sen. Dave Senjem and Rep. Marty Seifert laid out their cases on how to solve the $4.6 billion budget problem.

No signs of consensus
Chamber members left, shaking their heads. There were some harsh words and political threats — and nothing that sounded like consensus.

First up was the governor. He came to the breakfast meeting in shirt sleeves. As always, he was glib, comfortable and friendly.

For example, when asked if there were any chance of a Viking stadium bill being passed this session, Pawlenty grinned.

“There’s as much chance of that as there is of the Wild winning the Stanley Cup this year,” he said to laughs. 

But on this gorgeous spring morning, his message was grim, though it was said with a smile.

“My friends [DFLers] have a different view — dramatically raise revenue — billions in tax increases,” he said.

This plan, he said, would kill jobs. In fact, by the time he was discussing the Minnesota business climate, it was surprising that every business leader in the room didn’t rush out of the room, pack their bags and take their business somewhere else.

Oh, what a grim picture the governor painted — always with soft words, often with a smile on his face. It’s not just Minnesota that’s in trouble because of a bad business climate, he said. It’s the entire Great Lakes region.

He used troubled Michigan as an example.

“The business climate and unions priced Michigan out of the market,” he said.

Pawlenty promised that he would veto any legislation that would include any tax increase. Perhaps surprisingly, none of these anti-tax sentiments drew reaction from the breakfast-eating chamber members.

The big problem, he said, was the health and human services budget.

“It’s the runaway area of state spending,” he said. “It’s financially killing us. It threatens to overwhelm everything. We are in danger of becoming one big welfare and social services agency.”

Before leaving, he implored chamber members to call their legislators.

“Most legislators don’t have a business background,” the governor said. “They need to be educated, cajoled, pressured.”

He left the room to standing applause. But this was no ovation. Was the standing out of respect for the office or respect for the message? It was hard to tell.

Testy time for legislative leaders
Following Pawlenty’s message, the legislators sat, panel fashion, at the front of the room. Things got testy.

Pogemiller, the Senate leader from Minneapolis, clearly was irritated by Pawlenty’s anti-government message and his threats to veto the work of the legislative bodies.

“I think he needs to change his tone,” Pogemiller said, anger creeping into his voice. “I think we all need to recognize that the government is us. All of us. You may not like the representative from one district or another. But the body is us. … Our Job 1 is to balance the budget. If you can’t balance the budget honestly and fairly, you shouldn’t have the job.”

The tone seemed to startle the chamber members. Pogemiller was relentless in defense of the Senate’s tax bill that calls for $2.2 billion in tax increases. The governor’s balanced budget is not a balanced budget at all, he kept saying. “Borrowed money and accounting shifts,” he said. Pogemiller also kept saying the Senate’s approach to the budget problem called for far-deeper government cuts than those being proposed by Pawlenty.

Keilliher was also saying that the House bill, which calls for $1.5 billion in tax increases, was responsible and included business-friendly provisions. She rattled off a number of credits and breaks that would go to business as she addressed, in soft tones, the Chamber members.

“We all share responsibility,” she said.

Things really got personal when Seifert, the House minority leader from Marshall, picked up on the theme that health and human services is “out of control.”

Seifert then made everyone in the room gasp when he suggested that Minnesota might not be able to help provide health care to “anyone not born in Minnesota.”

House Speaker Keilliher was first to jump on Seifert’s comment.

“How many of you were not born in Minnesota?” she asked chamber members.

About half the people in the room raised their hands.

She noted that her great-grandmother was born in Sweden. Her husband was born in a different state.

“We shouldn’t leap to conclusions about who’s getting health care,” she said to Seifert.

“I meant foreigners,” muttered Seifert at one point.

And this got Pogemiller incensed.

“Those people — the Ecuadoran mothers with their children, the Hondurans, the Somalis — may be foreigners to you, Seifert,” Pogemiller said, “but they’re constituents to me. It’s offensive what you said.”

This was uncomfortable breakfast table talk.

The chamber members shifted the conversation to whether the governor and the Legislature could possibly reach agreement by the session’s closing date, May 18.

Seifert suggested that the only way that could happen is if the legislative leaders’ position moved.

“Unlike the federal government, we have someone with a veto pen, and he’s going to use it,” Seifert vowed. “The far left is going to have to move to the moderate right, which is where most Minnesotans are.”

He asked that the chamber members “e-mail your representatives and tell them to vote no on the House tax bill.”

Indeed, the governor does have a veto pen. But he’s also got a huge problem. Much of his balanced budget is based on the sale of tobacco revenue bonds, a borrowing technique that would give Minnesota $1 billion in one-time money. At 2 a.m. Friday, the House voted down the tattered remains of the governor’s bond bill, 130-2.

Chamber members kept coming back to the same question: Can the session end on time?

Somehow, the legislative leaders said it could.

The chamber members seemed skeptical.

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