This time around, DFLers can’t count on the ‘Override Six’ for help in passing tax increases

Rep. Jim Abeler
Rep. Jim Abeler

Walk into the office of Rep. Jim Abeler and the first thing you see is a “Team Pawlenty” jersey hanging from his office window.

“I’ve got a whole ‘Team Pawlenty’ shrine,” the Anoka Republican said. “I even carry a ‘Team Pawlenty’ card.”

He pulled out his billfold and started rifling through business cards.

“I know it’s here someplace,” he said.

He kept digging, finally triumphantly pulling it out.

“See?” he said. ” ‘Team Pawlenty.’ It’s signed by the governor himself.”

Indeed, there it was. The ‘Team Pawlenty’ card signed by the guv.

There’s a healthy bit of sarcasm in the shrine and the autographed card Abeler carries. He understands that Pawlenty’s aversion to any tax increases is probably more about smart politics than good policy.

But in the end, Abeler says he’ll be a good team man and, on principle, stand with his governor on the big issue of this session.  

Why this matters is that a year ago, when the legislative session was winding down to its usual discordant mess, Abeler was one of six House Republicans who voted to override the governor’s veto of a transportation bill that raised the state’s gasoline tax.

The Republican caucus was furious with the six, who, take your pick, were: courageous legislators of conscience or traitors.

Two of the six, Kathy Tingelstad and Bud Heidgerken, retired after last year’s session. Two others, Neil Peterson and Ron Erhardt, were defeated.  And two, Abeler and Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake, were re-elected. (Hamilton could not be reached for comment.)

In Abeler’s case, he not only swamped a party-backed opponent in the primary, winning 62 percent of the vote but went on to win 65 percent of the vote in November, indicating that in his district, people were more concerned with decent highways than party politics.

“It was extremely gratifying,” Abeler said.

This time around, if DFLers hold together, they will need just three votes to overturn a promised Pawlenty veto of any tax increases that might end up helping to solve the state’s estimated $4.6 billion budget deficit. What would happen if the DFL-controlled  House and Senate tax committees came up with what seemed to be a rational bill that combines cuts to the state budget, use of one-time money and tax increases? Would Abeler, a thoughtful man who has proved he has the moxie to go against his party, consider supporting a tax increase over the wishes of the governor and his party?

Abeler shook his head. Negative.

“When I was in my district a year ago, there was a huge demand to fix roads,” he said. “Remember, we had crumbling roads and bridges falling down. There is not that demand this time.”

Abeler made it clear: He believes that the governor will NOT support any budget that “has the t-word in it … and I’ll support the governor.”

If people such as Abeler aren’t willing to consider voting for a tax increase, what hope does the DFL have of balancing the budget, in part, with tax increases?

Again, the Abeler head shake. It can’t happen. He’s absolutely convinced that legislative business will not be concluded on May 18 and that a special session will be needed.

Abeler said he’s not supporting the governor simply out of party loyalty.

“I continue to vote my conscience,” the six-term legislator said. “I continue to do the best I can to be loyal to my party, but my priorities have always been to vote what’s good for my district and, of course, what’s good for the state.”

He says he’s sincere in his belief that tax increases, especially an additional income tax on the wealthiest Minnesotans, is not good policy.

“The people who the DFL would tax are the only people who can afford to leave the state” Abeler said. “That’s reality.”

Abeler is hardcore about the budget problem. He doesn’t believe the state can simply cut its way to balance.

“We need to create about a billion,” he says of the approach to solving the budget problem.

The governor, of course, has a billion-dollar plan for creating new revenue: the sale of a tobacco-bond, which, of course, would have to be repaid. Abeler calls that plan “ugly.” But, in his mind, it’s better than tax-increases. Perhaps, he suggests, part of the $1 billion can be raised through increasing fees on some government services and, maybe, a racino plan would also help.

“But for any form of gambling, they [DFLers] would have to vote against some of their best friends [the Indian tribes].”

What most frustrates Abeler about this session is the overstatements on both sides.

His area of expertise is health and human services. Even substantial budget cuts would mean Health and Human Services would receive an overall increase in revenue.

“I’m as humanatarian as any DFLer,” Abeler said. “I appreciate many of the feelings of many of my DFL counterparts. But we have to raise the threshold [for who is eligible for various medical assistance programs].

“Some cuts are tenable, and some are untenable,”  Abeler said. “If we cut wisely, it may not be nice, but we will not have people dying in the streets. The people who have a cough won’t get immediate treatment, but there will be care for those who really need it.”

The dirty little secret of this session, Abeler said, “is that nobody is in control. Not the speaker. Not the Senate majority leader. Not the governor. Everyone has varying degrees of influence, but not control.”

He believes he’s earned a substantial level of influence himself, given the independence he showed last year, as well as his willingness to work with DFLers in the past. And in the fundamental issue of this session – the battle over the budget – he will use his influence to stand with the governor.

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

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/05/2009 - 11:51 am.

    I hope Abeler is ready to deal with his district when the schools start crumbling like the bridges were crumbling. Just as much as they were willing to support him when he did the right things about roads, the’ll be as brutal in reverse if Anoka-Hennepin starts a mass teacher layoff.

  2. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 05/05/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    “Stupid is as Stupid does!”…Forrest Gump

    As musings go, I guess Forrest Gump must have been referring to the MN Legislature’s Republicans and Governor Pawlenty’s inane ‘no new taxes’ policy and rhetoric.

    Sometime in this crazy deficit debacle debate someone had better look to reforming our tax system to balance the state’s budget ‘for the long term’! No MN politician[s] has/have had the chutzpah or courage to stand up with a budget reform package that is for the long term state stability. The “no pain” for little or “no gain” policy doesn’t work in times of economic crises!

    As an old Econ prof once alluded, “If you want to enjoy and savor your proverbial ‘cake’, you have to gather the ingredients, bake it first, and then make the frosting!” “If you are successful and accomplish finishing the cake, then and only then, can you eat and enjoy it.”

    For too long Minnesota government has tried to eat the economic cake of the state without properly preparing or baking it first. Sometime soon, state government will have to start over on new cake recipe to survive the messy economic kitchen it is in. It will cost something to do bake such a cake but the end result will be a creative culinary success.

    The Governor with the Legislature had better go back in the kitchen and redo the forthcoming disaster meal they are making. This taxpayer doesn’t mind paying extra for a good meal with an expectant scrumptious dessert.

    If you get the message herein, then why can’t the Governor and the Legislature do as much? Hard, even messy, costlier work in the proverbial kitchen of life does have its culinary and tangible rewards.

  3. Submitted by Jay Vee on 05/05/2009 - 12:13 pm.

    Imagine my suprise. A good informative column on a Republican that wasn’t a hit piece and or snarky by Doug Grow.

    I’ll probably never contribute a nickle to MinnPost but if they keep this up I might just remove them from my Spam folder.

    Of course ‘Mine That Bird’ had better odds than the above happening anytime soon.

  4. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 05/05/2009 - 01:32 pm.

    A legislator who thinks for himself as opposed to following the party line? How novel!! The fact that Abeler can make news for simply taking a stand tells you all you need to know about the legislature and the current waste of space occupying the Governor’s office.

  5. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 05/05/2009 - 01:35 pm.

    Wonder if Rep. Jim Abeler and Rep. Rod Hamilton will be offered Vice Chair posts in committees next year?

    Or will new leaders emerge in 2010?

  6. Submitted by Pat Igo on 05/05/2009 - 01:59 pm.

    “Life is like a box of chocolates” You just never know what you are going to get. Let’s just hope Rep. Abeler sticks to his word.
    The majority of those now occupying the “wasted space” in St. Paul are, as stated above following their leaders with the matra of “Stupid is as stupid does”
    When and why can’t they get the simple message and do what the majority of the hard working people of this state (the folks paying the bills i.e taxpayers) are doing in this economy. Cut back and live within your means?

  7. Submitted by ellen wolfson on 05/05/2009 - 02:07 pm.

    I find Jim Abler’s logic a bit strange. He claims to believe in health care for the poor but he is willing to go along with Pawlenty’s cuts in medicaid and minncare. It is very disappointing, since I have always admired his stance on health care.

  8. Submitted by Dale Carlton on 05/05/2009 - 02:58 pm.

    JayVee must have already removed MinnPost from his Spam folder because he read the article and responded. Brilliant JayVee!

  9. Submitted by Jay Vee on 05/06/2009 - 12:12 pm.

    Re: # 8 young Master Carlton:
    Obviously I read MinnPost occasionally. MinnPost is via SUBSCRIPTION only. The reason one “uses” a Spam folder is to seperate the ‘wheat from chaff’. That’s not really that difficult a concept is it?

    I also occasionally eat my spinach. Not because I particularly like to but because I understand it just might do me some good. But thanks for your observation anyways.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/09/2009 - 02:11 pm.

    Francis Ferrell advised: “This taxpayer doesn’t mind paying extra for a good meal with an expectant scrumptious dessert.”

    That’s wonderful. I don’t have any problem with someone that wants a five star meal from the government, and is willing to pay for it.

    Unfortunately, Francis, you’re financial comfort is not shared by many of yuor neighbors.

    The governor, thankfully, has heard about the millions of families like mine that are struggling with pay cuts and layoffs. We are counting on him to prevent government from becoming the camel that breaks out family budget.

    Even though my family is dealing with a 10% decrease in income, we do not begrudge those that are in a better financial position….in fact, we wish them well.

    Please feel free to send that extra in anytime, Francis. And enjoy that sirloin!

    Minnesota Department of Revenue
    600 North Robert Street
    St. Paul, MN 55101

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/10/2009 - 03:09 pm.

    It wasn’t all that long ago that a majority of “millions of families like mine” voted to increase their taxes.

    Perhaps it depends on which part of the states population you choose to refer to.

    It might be fair to say that those “millions of families” thought that they had done something meaningful. Something that was going to have a positive impact on their quality of life our state.

    I don’t have any problem with millions of voters that feel that it is a good thing to have high quality parks and outdoor spaces in our state. It would appear that these millions voted and are willing to pay for it.

    If lower taxes are always the answer. Then why are low tax states like Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and most other southern states not experiencing booming growth and surplus budgets? I would think that with their low taxes “millions of families” would be flocking to these southern tax havens.

    Could it be the quality of life issues such as well funded schools, health care and parks, etc.. that are not as available in these tax havens?

    I’m one of those millions that enjoys all our state has to offer. I can run my business in just about any state. I choose Minnesota because of its quality of life and its skilled workforce. Something that does not come cheap.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/10/2009 - 07:44 pm.

    Richard, Minnesotans lavish billions of dollars each and every year on our public schools. If more money is always the answer, why are the public schools failing so badly and so completely?

    BTW, have you visited Birmingham recently? Looks pretty well cared for IMHO. And I’m sure you mistakenly identified Florida as a state that hasn’t experienced booming growth.

  13. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/10/2009 - 10:00 pm.

    Re: Florida

    Nearly every dollar in revenue will be spent including $5.3 billion expected from the federal government. Some trust funds built up during years of plenty will be drained. And, unlike many of its citizens, the state can’t take a second job — so it will be providing fewer services but taxing more.

    The reason: Florida has a broken ”Ponzi scheme of financing government” that relies on population growth to pay for government, said economist Sean Snaith. And with little or no population growth, the state’s finances won’t improve.

    ”Florida’s tax structure is flawed fundamentally,” said Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute of Economic Competitiveness, which issued a recent report on the state’s troubled condition.

    ”We saved what we could, but if we wind up with another $6 billion hole, there’s nothing we can do to avoid more cuts and revenues,” said Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican and Senate budget chief. He said lawmakers did all they could in one of the most challenging budget years in state history.

    ”This Legislature, politically, can’t set aside $6 billion in savings when we have all these needs in this state,” Alexander said.

    Thomas: If this were not from a Florida newspaper. I would almost think that it was an article about the current budget problems in Minnesota.

    We are all subprime now Thomas.

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