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.