Let it be said that when the state of Minnesota faced its most severe budget crisis in modern times, elected and appointed officials did what they do best: They dithered.
A gloomy November forecast gave way to an even gloomier one in February as the financial meltdown that racked the private sector came home to roost in state and local governments. It was, as we’ll recall, the worst of times, and it was the worst of times.
Still, lawmakers and Gov. Tim Pawlenty had ample warning that the state would be facing a $6.4 billion deficit. But not many new ideas gained traction. The old rivals — taxes v. cuts — squared off.
Let’s name innovation as the first loser in this Session 2009.
And there are other losers, as well as a few winners. So here is an irreverent, not-at-all-comprehensive MinnPost list of winners and losers at the Capitol this go round.
Winner: Jesus Christ. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle repeatedly invoked his name in floor sessions and committee hearings, if not exactly clarifying how He was guiding their votes. Further proof that Jesus still has the best publicist, if not always the best spokespeople.
Loser: The devil. As in, “in the details.” Thanks to the fiscal crisis and an influx of federal stimulus dollars, bean-counting was so confusing that some committee chairs weren’t sure of the total budgets they were dealing with. And DFLers passed a quickie tax bill that was mostly blank.
Winner: Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty will likely be named a “hero” in the national media for holding the line on taxes, and parlaying DFL ineptitude into a testimony to his own leadership. If he runs for president, he can have his Reagan-esque “government is the problem” moment on the campaign trail over and over again.
Loser: Gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty. Should the guv seek a third term — and the odds are usually against third-termers to begin with — he will have some explaining to do as his cuts and unallotments hit home for many Minnesotans. “The DFL is letting the governor own his cuts,” Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said late Monday. “And he does own them.” Will Minnesotans embrace King Tim or see him as Governor HockeyPuck?
Winner: The previously little-known Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy. DFL leadership breathed new life into the commission, chaired by House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and used the body as a vehicle to negotiate publicly with Pawlenty cabinet members. The commission also became the rare venue where DFL policies and desires were clearly articulated, and became an advertisement for Kelliher’s potential gubernatorial aspirations.
Loser: Tom Hanson, commissioner of the Minnesota Management and Budget office, and Pawlenty’s “federal stimulus czar.” The Obama bucks messed up spreadsheets and had so many strings attached that routine budgeting became an even bigger nightmare. Hanson, who served as the DFL’s whipping boy in lieu of Pawlenty, was called before the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy so often that it turned into a running joke. “Tom Hanson is a legislative piñata,” Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, said at one point.
Winner: Anyone chronically or terminally ill who seeks relief from medical marijuana. The House and Senate passed slightly different versions of a bill that will likely be vetoed by Pawlenty, but a few years ago, this step with broad bi-partisan support would have been unthinkable.
Loser: Anyone who hoped to play slots at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport while waiting for that flight to Fargo. Or anyone interested in any expansion of gambling. Though seen as a source of long-term revenue by some, DFL leaders never seriously considered it because Pawlenty repeatedly scotched the notion.
Break even: The “poorest of the poor.” During the waning days of the session, lawmakers tried to find a way around Pawlenty’s line-item cut of $381 million to the state’s General Assistance Medical Care program, which will move two-thirds of some 35,000 Minnesotans off the program’s rolls and theoretically into MinnesotaCare. How those making less than $8,000 a year with chronic conditions will make do is anyone’s guess, but rarely has so much media and lawmaker attention been paid to these souls.
Winner: The loon. In a rare moment of harmony, the House and Senate each passed a $234 million bill for the Legacy Amendment for parks, trails, clean water and the arts. Pawlenty might actually sign it.
Loser: The gopher. Some $190 million in higher ed cuts will likely make it tough for anyone who wants to send their son or daughter to college. MnSCU will be crippled administratively, and U of M President Robert Bruininks said a 15 percent tuition increase might be the only way to weather the cuts.
Winner: The tax chairs. Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, cooked up some gutsy ideas for revenue — they even uttered the T word — and articulated the state’s budget problem about as well as anyone. (See especially compelling video of Lenczewski here.)
Loser: The tax chairs. Then again, the duo couldn’t come together on a comprehensive plan, and failed to move anyone — including the governor and any number of Republicans available for an override vote — off the no-new-taxes stance.
Winner: House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. Even though his position within his own caucus was challenged before the session started, Seifert managed to keep his GOPers in lock-step, with no overriders on the horizon during this session.
Loser: Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who proved that his modus operandi is rigid ideology after all. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle blamed the lack of a budget deal at least in part on Pogie’s stubbornness.
Winner: Any fan of Pogie v. Pawlenty, which was in full swing again this year. A new era of compromise might hit the Capitol if/when either of these gentlemen is no longer in their positions of power. “The animus between them is very real,” Emmer said during the session. “To sit in a meeting with them is very tense, very awkward and just plain strange.”
Break even: House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. True, she wielded power on the legislative commission she chaired, but at times she seemed unable to unify her own caucus in the House, let alone build any kind of united front with Pogemiller. Last session, she came across as a cool, unflappable natural leader. This time around, she fell victim to fits of self-aggrandizement.
Then again, that might not be her fault. “Margaret wants to get stuff done,” Abeler said at one point, sounding a refrain familiar around the Capitol. “But she’s stuck between Larry and the governor. The governor is going to do what he wants to do. And I like Larry a lot, but it’s his time. It’s spring, it’s Larry season. And I’m sure he’d like me saying that.”
Winner: Any anti-tax zealot who believes Pawlenty saved their pocketbooks. There was a rally of at least 20 of them on the Capitol steps before Monday’s final sessions.
Loser: Any anti-tax zealot who owns a home. Since some $450 million is set to be cut out of Local Government Aid, local counties and municipalities will have to figure a way to keep cops on the street and potholes patched. A new era of rising property taxes in this housing market?
Winner: Any state staffers who were dreading the prospect of a special session. You can go home now.
Loser: Any political junkie who was looking for a fix outside of Franken/Coleman. No special session means back to the drudgery of the recount.
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.