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Amid chaos, tax bill passes — and solves nothing

It all ended in tumult and shouting. First in the Minnesota House, then the Senate.

The DFL was jamming through a close-of-session tax bill and Republicans were screaming, not so much at the content of the 33-page bill, they didn’t have time to worry about content. They were screaming about the style. Rammed, jammed, slammed. You name it, the DFLers were doing it. Their timing, their discipline was extraordinary. Parliamentary procedure, civility took a beating.

“Look what you’re trying to cram down our throats in the dead of night while the people of Minnesota are asleep,’’ yelled Rep. Marty Seifert, the House minority leader.

They all knew it was coming.

In the House, it was ONLY 11:25 Monday night when this last-gasp effort at one-upsmanship over Gov. Tim Pawlenty began.

The Republicans tried to go into a stall.

Seifert yielded the floor to his Republican colleague, Rep. Laura Brod.

“Charades!’’ she yelled. “What’s next? Twister? What games are we going to play? You know this won’t get signed.’’

She turned back to Seifert, who yielded the floor to another Republican, Tom Emmer.

He went into a heartfelt tirade

But with the clock ticking steadily toward midnight – and the need to move the bill from the House floor to the Senate – House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher took control.

“You’re too loud,’’ Kelliher said, speaking over Emmer. “Decorum in the House!’’

Decorum? Hmmm.

As the clock kept ticking, she somehow got the floor turned over to Rep. Tony Sertich, the House majority leader.

There was a vote. Later, laughing, he admitted he almost blew it. On a procedural vote, he needed to push the green voting button “for yes.’’ Instead, he pushed red, for “no.’’

The voting board was lighting up red.

Minneapolis DFLer Jim Davnie saw the mistake.

“Green!’’ he yelled.

The board in the House chamber that tallies votes suddenly turned green.

The clock was running. The bill was rolling now. With Republicans screaming “outrageous!” shameful!’’ “this is wrong!’’ the bill passed the House, 87-47, a straight party line vote.

It was zapped, via computer, to the Senate chamber a few hundred feet away. The Senate is usually a place filled with sort of a phony decorum.

But as the clock moved to 11:55, decorum was blown away.

The tax bill was introduced. Republican Sen. Julianne Ortman was speaking, trying to ask a question about the bill.

Sen. Jim Metzen, the president of the Senate, spoke over her.

“We adjourn at 12,’’ he said. “We’re going to vote this bill.’’

‘I don’t recognize you’

Now it was complete chaos.

Republican Sen. Dick Day left his seat and started collecting Senate rule books from his Republican colleagues.

“We don’t need these anymore!’’ he yelled.

As the DFLers voted, Senate minority leader Dave Senjem was yelling into his mike.

“Senator Ortman has the floor!’’

“I don’t recognize you,’’ Metzen was saying.

The Senate DFLers passed the bill. Republicans didn’t vote. It was midnight, maybe a shade after midnight.

“Motion to adjourn,’’ yelled Metzen over the din of angry Republicans.

There was a 43-0 vote to adjourn.

The chaos continued. Metzen cursed at a Republican senator who’d said something to him. Metzen, a few moments later, could be heard talking to some of his DFL colleagues.

“I feel terrible about this,’’ he said.

But the rest of the DFLers in the House and the Senate didn’t feel terrible. They felt giddy. In the closing seconds they’d pulled it off. They’d passed a balanced budget bill that calls for a billion dollars in tax increases, makes major cuts, gives a few breaks to businesses.

It will arrive at the governor’s office either Sunday or Monday.

“Dead on arrival,’’ said Senjem.

And that is almost certainly true. Pawlenty will veto the bill and that will be that.

(By the way, there’s another bill that Pawlenty will veto. Long after the session was over, House Republicans learned they’d joined in a 134-0 vote on a long bill that included a language change that would give local governments the right to give “domestic partners” the same rights as married couples have; meaning cities such as Minneapolis would be able to give health insurance to domestic partners. Under current state law, municipalities can’t do that.

(At 1:30 this morning, a handful of Republican legislators were standing outside the Capitol shaking their heads in amusement over their vote.

(“The governor will save us,’’ said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg. “He’ll veto it.’’)

But the huge maneuver was the tax bill. What did they gain with it?

The DFLers unloaded months of frustration. In what many will see as an act of defiant irresponsibility, they got to say that they balanced the budget in a responsible way. It’s so responsible DFL leaders were trying to say, with straight faces, that maybe Pawlenty will see the wisdom of it and sign it.

But the bill, which balances the budget with tax increases and an accounting shift, is similar to previous legislation vetoed by Pawlenty that raised income taxes on the wealthy, credit card firms and liquor.

“It’s a stretch,’’ said Sertich, adding that maybe the governor will think carefully about the bill, see its wisdom, see the deep budget cuts, the protections against big leaps in property taxes, the funds for hospitals and schools, and sign the bill.

Yes, indeed. That’s a stretch.

 So why’d they do it?

Two choices

Sen. Tarryl Clark, the Senate assistant majority leader, summed it up best from the DFL viewpoint. 

“He left us with two choices,’’ said Clark of Pawlenty. “We could do it his way or he would do it his way.’’

That’s true. By “negotiating’’ with Pawlenty, the only thing DFLers might have gained is some softening of his cuts by agreeing with him to do such things as accounting shifts.  

So perhaps, the only thing the DFL could do was show Minnesotans how they believe the state should be led.

But it’s also true that now Pawlenty is going to do it his way: More than $3 billion will be cut from the budget in line-item vetoes and unallotments. It won’t be pretty.

Deep breath now.

We so often hear that hard times create big, bold ideas, strong leaders.

Back in January, when this session began, Republicans and DFLers acknowledged that the $6.4 billion dollar deficit was a crisis. These were indeed the hardest times state leaders had faced in generations.

“Minnesotans deserve more than politics as usual,’’ Pawlenty said over and over again.

But in the end, Minnesotans got more power politics than ever before. Bold ideas, collaborative leadership interested in governing? It didn’t happen.

Oh sure, behind the scenes, rank and file DFLers and Republicans were trying to work together and think big thoughts. But they were boxed in by leaders who were entrenched. From the get-go, Pawlenty was saying “NO NEW TAXES.’’ From the get-go, DFL leaders were saying there had to be a “share the pain’’ way of solving the problem, and that included some tax increases.

Emmer, an often bombastic conservative, spoke softly, quietly about the failure to tackle the state’s problems in any creative way.

Of course, Emmer blamed DFL leaders for the failure of this session. But he also said that there were bold ideas discussed in various committees.

“I think changes will come,’’ Emmer said. “I think seeds have been planted and someday there will be blossoms.  As time moves forward, you get to know each other. You get to know the people on the other side of the aisle and you both learn you want the same thing and you get tired of your leaders telling you what you have to do. But what happens is that the same old politics is so entrenched around here.’’

Again, he pointed fingers, but only half-heartedly, at DFL leaders.

DFL Sen. Dick Cohen was asked the same question: Why were there no big, bold ideas when the state was in such a desperate place?

Like Emmer, Cohen was thoughtful. Not surprisingly, he said the problem was Pawlenty.

“I think facing the deficit we faced, it’s unreasonable to think that you can come up with great new ways of doing things,’’ Cohen said. “All you’re trying to do is survive. From my perspective, from the beginning he [Pawlenty] only wanted to speak to what he believes is his national base. That meant, from the beginning we were going different directions.’’

It’s that simple really. A Republican governor and a DFL legislative leadership couldn’t hear each other from the moment the session opened in January.

Minnesotans may have deserved something more than politics as usual, but the complete leadership gridlock meant Minnesotans got politics-as-usual squared.

The one big DFL mistake was that for months, House and Senate leadership couldn’t come to a unified plan on how to solve the budget problem. DFLers needed time – a lot of time – to sell at least a few Republicans and Minnesotans in general on the importance of a multi-faceted approach to balancing the budget.

Passing the blame around

Many are quick to blame Senate majority leader Larry Pogemiller for that failure. From the beginning of the session, he was leading the Senate in a different direction from the direction the House was headed.

 In fact, Day was blaming Pogemiller for the whole mess. 

“It’s all about Pogemiller,’’ Day said in the wake of the jam job. “He doesn’t like the governor. When you have the sort of animosity he has toward the governor, it’s pretty hard to get anything done.’’

Day was so upset, he started saying nice things about former DFL majority leaders.

“I’ve been here under great leaders,’’ Day said. “Roger Moe, John Hottinger, Dean Johnson. . . .well, he did turn off our microphones once in awhile, but he never would have pulled a stunt like this. As long as Pogemiller is the leader, I’ll never use a rule book again.’’

He went back to blasting Pogemiller’s inability to get along with Pawlenty.

But that’s a two-way street. Pawlenty isn’t fond of Pogemiller, either. And in terms of political gamesmanship, Pawlenty was at least as audacious as the DFLers.  

It was, recall, Pawlenty who grandly announced late last week that there would be no special sessions, no government shutdowns – and no new taxes.

DFL leaders did meet on a few occasions with Pawlenty after that brassy pronouncement. The meetings went nowhere. It was after a meeting on Saturday night, Anderson said, that the House and Senate leaders decided there was no real chance of negotiating a budget deal with the governor. They continued to insist any budget deal had to offer some “pay as you go’’ features, meaning some revenue increases. And he kept saying no.

At a time when Minnesota needed leaders who could sit down together, put aside egos and partisanship and solve a big problem, they got politicians who couldn’t hear each other. 

The House, of course, did try to override the governor’s veto of a tax bill on Sunday. That failed.

So they went with their grand finale strategy. It’s all they had left.

They won a midnight victory. Pawlenty will counter.

And Minnesota will have to hope for something better next time.

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

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 05/19/2009 - 07:38 am.

    Yes, another example of the DFL’s extraordinary timing and discipline. I couldn’t even read that with a straight face.

  2. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 05/19/2009 - 09:21 am.

    I just don’t get it. I admit to being a DFLer, but what about what the Governor is doing is anything to laud??? How can Republicans say that anything about this is democratic or representative in nature? We have one person doing the deciding. One!

    The Governor said he didn’t want any more “politics as usual”, and yet the only thing we’ve heard from him since the beginning of the Session was the same thing we’ve heard for the last six years, “No new taxes!” No new ideas, no suggestions, nothing!

    I listened to Don Shelby on the way home last night and heard the average worker calling in and saying, “You can’t raise my taxes.” I saw an interview on TV last night with average Joes and Janes at the Capitol saying, “You can’t raise my taxes!”

    Is Minnesota’s education system so far gone that people who are making $30,000 and $40,000 a year think that when Legislators say they want to raise taxes on the highest income earners, those in the upper 2%, that Legislators are talking about them? How hard is it to understand that making $30,000 or $40,000 a year, even in a two earner household, does not add up to the $150,000 to $300,000 and above incomes Legislators were talking about taxing.

    So now instead of taxing those with means, who have been taxed at a rate less than us average Janes for years, OUR property taxes will go up. Oh, yes those of means will have their property taxes rise, too. But is a property tax increase what you really want?

    And where is the outrage (and news coverage) of the accounting gimmicks, shifts, and borrowing Pawlenty used to get his budget to where its at? Two years from now we’re going to be in the same position, only worse. And our grandchildren will be paying for his errors for years.

    Do Minnesotans understand that basically what Pawlenty is doing is borrowing to pay today’s bills? Not for some highway or building that’s going to last 30 years or longer, but for TODAY’S BILLS. Does that honestly sound like pay-as-you-go?

    I know it’s hard to pay attention during the legislative session and to find the time it takes to become informed about what’s going on, I too work an eight hour day with a one hour commute each way. But people, don’t just read the headlines, read the articles. Don’t just spew out to your fellow workers what you heard on the morning talk show as you drove to work. Think about it, does it make sense?? Even $60,000 a year times two is less than $300,000

    Do you really want to live in a state where ONE PERSON is making the decisions about whether your children are in a classroom of 30 kids or 45 kids? Or whether your child’s tuition at the U or other state universities will go up 4% or 10%? Or whether now on top of your eight-hour-a-day job and commute you will have to include as part of your day taking care of grandma or grandpa because the local nursing home closed?

    And do you really think that shoving those who make $8,000 a year or less off state funded healthcare won’t just add to the premium increase you will see this fall when you sign up again for your healthcare benefits?

    Minnesotans, it’s time to gather factual information and to think and ponder it, not just regurgitate what you hear some talk show host, or even Pawlenty or your legislator say. Think for yourselves and don’t let someone else do the thinking for you! And that’s for DFLers and Republicans and Independents (and Greens, etc.)

  3. Submitted by David Cater on 05/19/2009 - 09:22 am.

    Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

  4. Submitted by Billie Tuttle on 05/19/2009 - 09:25 am.

    It is easy for newspaper pundits to sit back and criticize “both sides” in order to maintain the fragile illusion of binary oppositional “objectivity” we all know doesn’t exist. There are always more than two sides to a political story, even when journalists refuse to cover anything but the duopoly parties.

    Which is one of the many legitimate reasons why the newspaper industry is going under. Some believe they deserve to, and with an article like this, I am tempted once again to agree.

    The citizenry doesn’t trust mainstream media “objectivity” nor should they. It is the job of the fourth estate to tell us the facts, yes.

    But where writers like Doug Grow fail us, is in their opinion pieces like this, where they refuse to say what needs to be said: when you are only looking at two parties, one party is often more wrong than the other.

    In this instance, I actually don’t blame either party for this mess. I blame the governor, who doesn’t care one whit whether a hospital in small town MN closes, so long as he can remain ideologically pure to his national base.

    The truth of this mess is truly about one man’s blind ambitions, and Doug Grow seems to have simply lost sight of what both the DFL and Republican rank and file are surely thinking this morning: has Pawlenty destroyed the entire fabric of political discourse by “going nuclear”, just so he can say he won?

  5. Submitted by Ross Willits on 05/19/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    Here’s the crux of the matter, as Grow says, “From the get-go, Pawlenty was saying “NO NEW TAXES.’’ From the get-go, DFL leaders were saying there had to be a “share the pain’’ way of solving the problem, and that included some tax increases.”

    Read that carefully.

    Pawlenty had a completely entrenched position that had nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances on the ground, and the DFL was looking for a solution that recognized the need for sacrifice, and looked for ways to share that burden.

    There is not an equivalence in these two positions.

    Pawlenty said he wanted a new style of politics. What he didn’t make clear enough is that the new style he wanted was dictatorship.

  6. Submitted by Billie Tuttle on 05/19/2009 - 01:02 pm.

    I did “read it carefully” and came to a different conclusion than you and Doug Grow.

  7. Submitted by Billie Tuttle on 05/19/2009 - 01:04 pm.

    Perhaps some here would do well to read Brian Lambert’s recent piece “Your Daily Paper: It’s All About Them”.

    If you catch my drift.

  8. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 05/19/2009 - 01:09 pm.

    Doug, I’m disappointed, too. You are being awfully soft on people who long ago started dismantling Minnesota’s commitment to a good life for all its citizens. The folks who reduced the tax rate and began rebating tax monies in the ’90s were led by Tim Pawlenty and his faithful pal, Steve Sviggum. The deficit when Pawlenty took over was his own doing. The continued cuts and penny-pinching have led to drastically decreased services and local governments on the ropes.
    This is a disgrace.

    All hail King Tim.

  9. Submitted by Stuart Ronkainen on 05/19/2009 - 01:52 pm.

    Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

    And you may to say to yourself, “This is not my beautiful state!”

  10. Submitted by Ross Willits on 05/19/2009 - 02:20 pm.

    In response to Billie Tuttle:

    OK, so I read the story. I completely agree.

    Now what’s your point?

  11. Submitted by david granneman on 05/19/2009 - 02:21 pm.

    the news is reporting that up to six states may be asking the federal government to bail them out.
    these states are deep in debt and are on the verge of complete failure. the one thing these states have in common is THEY HAVE THE HIGHEST TACES IN THE COUNTRY. leading these failing states is california. california has the highest taxes in the nation. high income people and business are fleeing the state to places with lower taxes.
    in minnesota high taxes have driven 3m to texas and northwest airlines to atlanta. texas has low taxes and instead of being deep in debt, they have created more jobs this year than all the other states combined

  12. Submitted by Billie Tuttle on 05/19/2009 - 02:42 pm.

    MY point?

    Hehe. Shall I spend this lovely spring day engaging in a dumberer and dumberer tit for tat w/a sorehead comments section pundit defending status quo Joe journos?

    No, I think not.

  13. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/19/2009 - 08:29 pm.

    To me, here is the biggest piece missed: Jobs.

    TPaw is supposed to be the great protector of jobs. Protect the wealthy and you protect the job providers. Granted these are all hypothetical jobs.

    When TPaw cuts 318 million from hospitals, he will be cutting real jobs immediately, instead of saving hypothetical jobs. Thousands of jobs will be lost, and for what, to protect a very few from contributing a nominal amount more.

    So, TPaw is the biggest threat to and the biggest cost to jobs this state has ever seen.

    All of TPaws plans directly hurt some of the least among us in order to protect those with an unbelievable among us. The least among us are damn hard workers too, working two or three jobs just to support their families with health care and a home.

  14. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/19/2009 - 08:38 pm.

    David, you said:

    “texas has low taxes and instead of being deep in debt, they have created more jobs this year than all the other states combined”

    Texas also has one of the worst eduction systems in the nation because of how they support, or lack of support. This is one of the reasons Texas has an incarceration rate 415% as high as Minnesota’s. In fact, almost all low/no income tax states have incarceration rates dramatically higher than ours.

    David, would you like to emulate this aspect of the low income tax states as well?

    Also, what kind of jobs are being created in Texas? Low wage/low benefit jobs?

    Anyway, check out

    Also check out the accompanying data table. You sure you want us to turn into those prison states you love so much?

  15. Submitted by Joe Musich on 05/19/2009 - 10:15 pm.

    “There is not an equivalence in these two positions.”

    Where is my “Eat the rich” T-shirt. It was red if I remember correctly. Shame on the local media for drawing “equivalence.” In SW Mpls. I see homes along Lake Harriet and King’s Highway with second and third huge additions ! And places are boarded up in North Mpls. Where is the equivalence in that picture ?

  16. Submitted by david granneman on 05/20/2009 - 10:35 am.

    hello all
    alex – do you think it is a bad thing that the state of texas locks up criminals – unlike minnesota that allows them to walk the streets.

  17. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/23/2009 - 07:01 am.

    Nice riff’s on a theme Stuart and David…

    Timeless lyrics that are nearly thirty years old.

    Now let’s bring it home………

    And you may ask yourself
    What is that beautiful house?
    And you may ask yourself
    Where does that highway go?
    And you may ask yourself
    Am I right? …am I wrong?
    And you may tell yourself
    My god!…what have I done?

  18. Submitted by Terry Burke on 05/24/2009 - 09:33 pm.


    In the important first 21 lines of your article, you present the Republican point of view.

    This is what bias looks like in journalism.

    Pawlenty’s budget cut by 25% the discretionary income the weakest and poorest Minnesotans have a month. Adults with disabilities in group homes can now keep only $89 of their SSI when it was about $120 for 20 years.

    His great prinicipled stand meant that people making over a quarter of a million dollars a year, credit card companies charging over 15% in interest and liquor sales have been protected!!!!!

    WHAT A GUY!!! Not one red cent more for wealthy people, credit card companies or liquor sellers – BUT HE DID CUT BY 25% THE SPENDING MONEY OF THE VERY MOST VULNERABLE MINNESOTANS WHO ARE ALREADY IN POVERTY!!!!

    And Doug Grow’s ridiculous article paints the whole thing as just a problem of the two parties not working together (but more blame for the DFL).


  19. Submitted by Terry Burke on 05/24/2009 - 09:48 pm.


    “The DFLers unloaded months of frustration. In what many will see as an act of defiant irresponsibility, they got to say that they balanced the budget in a responsible way.”

    This wasn’t a comment from a Republican. This was Grow’s comment in the middle of what I thought was supposed to be a news article. He makes the judgment call that many will see the DFL’s passage of a bill that would have balanced the budget by sharing the pain as “an act of defiant irresponsibility”.

    I stood with the hundreds of responsible community leaders, clergy, and citizens outside the House chambers for hours on Sunday. Invest in Minnesota was one of many groups calling for a responsible budget. Increasing taxes on the wealthy (about $120 for a $250,000 household), on credit card companies and liquor sales was a responsible way to raise funds.

    Pawlenty’s idiotic run for president makes him incapable of looking at any responsible increase of funds. And your “news article” calls the DFL’s bill something “many will see as act of defiant irresponsibility”.

    This is NOT high quality journalism.

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