Down to the last second of the last day of this session, there will be one thing that can be counted on: Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, will rise to speak, and across the House chamber, members of both parties will wince.
“I’m told I give far too many speeches,” said Buesgens. “That seems to be a bipartisan attitude.”
He shrugged, smiled and pointed to a Latin phrase he has taped to his laptop: “Illegitimati non carborundum.”
“Barry Goldwater’s favorite,” said Buesgens. “It means, ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ ”
Even after all these weeks at the Capitol, Buesgens is one of the few who is un-ground.
Though he’s in his sixth term, he won’t be a player in these final days of negotiations. But then, most legislators are out of the mix in the wheeling and dealing. They’re here only to vote as their leaders tell them to vote.
The “game” is in full ninth-inning swing as lawmakers race toward Monday’s final day of the session with still lots to do.
On Friday, the DFL-controlled House and Senate passed a tax proposal calling for $1 billion in new revenues. On Saturday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it. Then, on Monday, he sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
“In the spirit of compromise …,” Pawlenty wrote, presumably with a straight face, “I offer the following ideas to help facilitate an agreement …”
Pawlenty’s idea of compromise still includes his standard stand: NO NEW TAXES.
The governor does seem to be getting the idea that his plan to borrow nearly $1 billion against future revenues — the so-called tobacco bond — is highly unpopular with legislators of both parties. In his “spirit of compromise” letter, he suggested that he’d cut the size of the bond in half and agree to more accounting shifts, as proposed by the House. He’d also give up the idea of setting aside $250 million in reserves. This combination of moves would come close to totaling the $1 billion that separates the governor and the DFL-controlled Legislature from filling the state’s $4.6 billion deficit.
Leaders aren’t buying Pawlenty ‘compromise’
But the governor’s idea is not being seen as a compromise by legislative leaders. They insist that he’s not solving the budget problem but, rather, pushing it ahead a couple of years. They’re counting on individuals and organizations to rise up and put pressure on the governor, or at least the handful of Republican House members needed to swing an override of Pawlenty’s veto. The Senate already has a veto-proof DFL majority.
On Monday, a rally in the Capitol rotunda drew hundreds of people from the Invest in Minnesota coalition of labor organizations, nonprofits and religious organizations who insist that a tax increase is necessary.
“The budget is a moral document,” said the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, executive director of the Minnesota Council of churches. “This is not the time to cut and dismantle services. There is no private wealth without common wealth. This is the time to invest in our communities.”
“Override!” chanted some in the crowd.
There will be more pressure for a tax increase today, when an organization called Parents United for Public Schools holds a bake sale at the Capitol as a symbol of the precarious financial state of the schools.
But no one knows so well as Buesgens how futile these gestures may prove. By this time in the session, virtually everybody is locked into a position. Still, he hasn’t stopped giving often-flowery speeches about the ills of taxes, the legislative attacks on the Constitution and liberty.
“I learned a long time ago that seldom do speeches change the hearts and minds of the people on the floor,” he said.
So why bother? Why prolong debates and agitate members of both parties?
“The value is outside this body,” he said. “Television stations, MinnPost, other things that people might read might pick up what I’m saying. I have a lot of people, not just constituents, who thank me for being their voice.”
Buesgens an equal-opportunity offender
Again, it should be pointed out that Buesgens, a math teacher, who spent four years teaching in Ecuador, is a unique character in legislative circles who doesn’t just agitate DFLers with his style. He agitates Republicans, too, with his words and his actions. For example, he refuses to participate in caucuses.
“I’m an outsider,” he said. “I have my colleagues ask, ‘Why not go to caucuses?’ The purpose of the caucuses is to learn about legislation. Well, I read the legislation. The other purpose is to tell me how to vote.”
And that’s a deal breaker for Buesgens.
He has opposed his caucus — and his governor — on some bills, the medicinal marijuana bill being a big one.
“I was the second author on the marijuana bill,” he said, explaining that about a year and a half ago, his mother was painfully dying of lung cancer.
“Had she asked me to get her some marijuana, I would have done it,” he said.
That’s not exactly in keeping with the law-and-order Republican stereotype, which is fine with him.
“I’m more a libertarian than a Republican,” he said.
He is not against all taxes. But he is opposed to most taxes, because government’s already too big.
“Want to balance the budget?” he asked. “It’s not hard. Just roll back to the budget of 2006-2007. Going back to that draconian age takes care of it. It’s done. We go home.”
A different view of compassion
He’s not concerned if many see him as cold-hearted. Government, he says, shouldn’t be in the business of compassion.
“Liberty should be at the core of government, not compassion,” he said. (He’s given dozens of floor speeches on the theme, much to the distress of his colleagues.) “We pretend to be compassionate, but how can you be compassionate with somebody else’s money. If I reach into your pocket, take your money and give it away, that’s not compassion. If I write a check and give it to charity, that’s compassion.” (He’s given that speech a few times, too.)
There will be much to speechify on in these final days, though probably nothing will fire him up as much as the smoking ban legislation of a few years ago. Oh, how Buesgens, a smoker, tried to talk that down.
“I asked two questions,” he said. “I asked, ‘Who was forced to work in a business that allowed smoking? If they were forced to work in such a place, that’s slavery.’ And I asked, ‘Who was forced to enter a business where smoking was allowed. If they were forced to enter, that’s kidnapping.’ Slavery and kidnapping. Last I checked, those are crimes.”
Even though it will be a handful of powerful legislators and the governor who will be the key players for the rest of this session, Buesgens will find much to speechify on. He gives House Speaker Kelliher high marks for her fairness in allowing him to make his points.
“She smiles when she turns to me,” said Buesgens. “It’s possible her smile is through gritted teeth.”
He doesn’t care. To him, the audience is somewhere out beyond the Capitol walls.
“There are people out there who want to believe somebody is fighting for them,” he said. “I’m their Patrick Henry.”
Was it mentioned that he can be a little dramatic?
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.