DFLers score lots of political points at budget hearing — but after the game seems over

One or two or three more times, DFL legislators are making their case for how they had a better way to govern Minnesota.

Following what is generally seen as a failed legislative session, DFL legislative leaders, meeting Thursday afternoon as part of the statute-prescribed Legislative Advisory Commission in the unallotment process, hammered away at Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

What’s not quite clear is who the DFLers think is listening. The mass of Minnesotans who have gone fishing? Fellow legislators who might think their leaders failed during the session?  DFLers who might be trying to pick a gubernatorial candidate? Moderate Republicans, if there are any?

The DFLers seemed filled with sincerity at the hearing with a handful of administration commissioners.

But what does it matter?

Familiar points but new examples of impact
“Did you hear anything that you hadn’t heard before?” asked Tom Hanson, the commissioner of the Department of Finance, who was the governor’s stand-in at the LAC session.

Well, yes and no.

Commissioner Tom Hanson
Photo by Craig Lassig
Commissioner Tom Hanson

What was heard was the case the DFL legislators should have been making to Minnesotans in March, when there still was time to convince Minnesotans that a balanced approach to balancing the budget — a combination of tax increases and budget cuts — would have been the fairest approach.

As it was, of course, the DFL-controlled House and Senate didn’t unite on a balancing plan until late in the session, when it was too late to generate any sort of meaningful public support. By then, Pawlenty had not just drawn a no-new-taxes line in the sand, he’d built a brick wall, in effect saying: “NO NEW TAXES, and I’ll unallot and veto to get my way.”Game over.

So what we have now is an exhibition of rhetoric and an exhibition of what might have been. The DFLers are playing no meaningful role. The law prescribes that this body of various House and Senate leaders and heads of tax and finance committees meets with the governor (or his stand-ins) to ask a few questions, show a lot of angst and offer some advice that the governor won’t listen to.

And that’s that.

Still, the process had some merit. At their strongest moments, DFLers were able to put faces on the governor’s plans. Pawlenty, after all, is pretty easy-going when he talks about how state government should make budget cuts, just like every Minnesota family and every Minnesota business has to do.

But, of course, Pawlenty’s plan to whack $2.675 billion out of budget for the new biennium comes on the heels of cuts already made by the Legislature, and it comes on the heels of unallotments Pawlenty made in December.

Personalizing the budget cuts
One witness testifying before the LAC talked about one of those small places most of us never notice. It’s called the Andrew House, located at the edge of downtown Minneapolis. The place is home for 212 poor people with seriously unstable lives.

According to Karen Foy, executive director of the Andrew House, the governor’s new round of cuts will cost the Andrew House $600,000 and follows 7.58 per cent cuts in the last year.

“That’s the equivalent of laying off the night staff (of 21 people),” Foy said. “Or we could get to that by taking away the health insurance of our entire staff (of 107). … Or, we can close.”

Most of her staff, she said, currently works for about $11 an hour. The Andrew House, she said, is far more efficient in delivering services than other options, and “it’s the one stable thing in the lives of these people.” 

And now it’s on the brink.

Hanson took notes.

Rep. Paul Marquart
Rep. Paul Marquart

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dillworth, also passionately talked of how cuts are not just numbers. He zeroed in on cuts Pawlenty has made in a program that gives poor seniors small refunds on their rents.

“How many senior citizens will be forced out of their apartments?” Marquart asked Ward Einess, the commissioner of the Department of Revenue.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Einess.

Marquart blew up.

“It’s all about choices,” he said. “Whenever we suggested raising taxes on people making $300,000 a year or more, you [meaning the administration] were quick to defend the wealthiest. ‘It would be a job killer!’ you said. They would have had an increase of $109. The governor thought that was terrible. Yet, we’re willing to increase the taxes [actually, cut refunds] on these senior citizens or people with disabilities by $159 a year, and nobody in the administration is concerned. It’s about choices.”

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, majority leader, interrupted Marquart.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller
Sen. Larry Pogemiller

“We’re trying to focus on the facts,” Pogemiller said, attempting to calm Marquart.

(Yes, that’s right. Pogemiller was the calming influence.)  

Measuring the job losses
Actually, the LAC was trying to force Pawlenty’s stand-ins to attach real numbers to the cuts.

In most cases, they couldn’t, although they said they’d try to get back to the LAC with numbers for a next meeting.

How many jobs will be lost because of the cuts? Rep. Tony Sertich, House majority leader, put that question to James Schowalter, the state’s budget director.

“An uncertain number,” Schowalter replied, offering an estimate of about 3,100.

Sertich suggested the combined number could go as high as 11,000 jobs lost, when considering public-sector jobs, those tied to nursing homes and hospitals and other private-sector jobs that will be lost through the ripple effect of the state cuts.

Schowalter didn’t think so.

“So we can say the range is between 3,000 and 11,000?”

Sen. Linda Berglin
Sen. Linda Berglin

Sen. Linda Berglin took on Cal Ludeman, commissioner of Health and Human Services. Time after time, she pointed to relatively small programs that face unallotment.

“Where will these people go?” she wondered, asking about one program for the poorest among us.

“Well,” said Ludeman, who seems truly troubled by the cuts, “the counties can pick up some.”

“Once you’ve unallotted LGA and $69 million in grants to the counties, they won’t have any money,” Berglin replied.

Ludeman held up his hands, dropped them, shook his head and said nothing.

DFL leaders pound home their points
Oh yes, the DFLers scored lots of points.

They pounded the Pawlenty administration on property tax increases during his “no new taxes” era in government, up from  about $4 billion in 2003 to more than $8 billion now, with that number sure to rise, given that Pawlenty is to unallot $99 million in Local Government Aid for 2010 and an additional $200 million in 2011.

They pounded him for using the phrase “accounting shift” by delaying $1.8 billion in school aid payments.

“That’s a cut, not a shift,” Pogemiller said, noting that with no new revenue (tax increases), there’s no way to pay for the shift.

DFLers pointed out that they had agreed to a $1.8 billion K-12 funding shift, but their approached, they said, was responsible, because their budget included new revenue, meaning there actually would be money to pay for the schools when the bill comes due.

They pounded the governor for general fiscal irresponsibility.

Sen. Dick Cohen
Sen. Dick Cohen

“Isn’t it accurate to say he [Pawlenty] is essentially balancing the budget with one-time money?”  Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, asked Schowalter.

Schowalter didn’t think so.

Cohen replied that the governor gets to the balance point with one-time stimulus money and one-time budget shifts and unallotments, which are restored at the end of the biennium.  Essentially, all one-time funds.

Schowalter didn’t respond.

The DFLers pointed out that at the end of the biennium, the deficit could rise to nearly $7 billion.

“This governor’s gift to the state is a permanent deficit,” said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is expected to announce soon her candidacy for governor. “I understand why he wants to cut and run.”

Oh yes, the DFLers scored lots and lots of points Thursday.

Problem is, the game’s over.

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

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 06/19/2009 - 10:08 am.

    May I remind one and all, that it wouldn’t have mattered when or where the DFL began to try to drum up support for a “balanced” approach to the budget shortfall. Governor Pawlenty’s “no new taxes” pledge is, and has clearly been for a very long time, not a line in the sand, but a brick wall with out so much a crack in it let alone a door that could have been negotiated open a crack (which is what seems to be implied by this article).

    Furthermore, at this point in his politically-ambitious career, it would not have mattered to our darling Tim if 90% of Minnesotans had been opposed to his “no new taxes” approach. He’s not playing to Minnesota. He’s not staying in Minnesota. His audience, his mentors, his keepers, those who hold his leash (although he doesn’t seem to realize, yet, that he’s leashed), are all somewhere else.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/19/2009 - 10:25 am.

    I agree the Democrats failed to mobilize public outrage during the session. I’ve always encouraged them to collaborate with local groups, the could’ve had 20 thousand people on the capital steps, or in front of Pawlenty’s house.

    But in their defense, it was hard to act until they actually saw Pawlenty’s figures. He was very dodgy about the actual numbers during the session.

    In general the situation just sucks because we have a governor that doesn’t care about anything but his political ambitions, and he’s willing to throw the state under a bus to get there. But he’s soooo likable isn’t he?

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/19/2009 - 10:37 am.

    It seems to me that these braying Democrat legislators are finding their smarmy rhetoric falling on deaf ears not because their constituents are off fishing, but because we are too busy working two jobs to keep our bills paid to listen to their hypocritical spew.

    If they wish to speak with authority, accepting a 10% cut in pay, a 100% increase in their contributions (since they currently pay nothing)to their medical coverage, and to simulate the effect of having their private retirement account take a commensurate hit(since they all plan on retiring on the public’s back), perhaps they might donate 40% of their pension accounts to the state’s general fund.

    I cannot wait for the opportunity to confront my state Representatives and Senator, face to face, with the reality of the financial hardships my neighbors and I are dealing with.

    Let the situations the rest of us are dealing with soak in to their clueless brains for a few months and we’ll see how anxious they are to raise taxes.

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 06/19/2009 - 10:58 am.

    Dougy be praised…//^;^\\?

    Essentially what D. Grow is saying to the DFL dissenting group, is – what Khamenei is telling the protesting Iranian populists…”Forget it, you’re kicking a dead horse.”

    But for the love of allah or whomever, take another look…here or there; either/or. I see a pulse still
    beating ‘justice,justice,justice’…the ‘stallion’ is not dead. The ‘race’ is not over..

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/19/2009 - 11:10 am.

    The DFL was faced with a decision during the last session of the legislature. They could choose a winning legislative strategy, or a losing legislative strategy. For various reasons, they made the decision to lose which is just fine. But there isn’t any point whining about it now.

  6. Submitted by Brian Rose on 06/19/2009 - 11:25 am.

    I’m really getting sick of having to deal with the aftermath of politicians who are more interested in their political future than just handling the job at hand. Gov. Pawlenty knows that recessions are best handled with federal dollars (already accepted), reserve funds and raising targeted taxes but of course raising any taxes would kill his Repulican ambititons so now we’re all gunna see how much these cuts really cost the state economy.

    Brian Rose

  7. Submitted by dan buechler on 06/19/2009 - 11:44 am.

    Actually Mr. Swift I agree with you in some ways until you realize that many of the state’s vendors i.e. non-unionized subcontracted employees make $11/hour with low benefits. There is room for some pay and benefit cuts and tax increases at the upper end but that is not the nature of the beast if you are disabled or poorly paid there is no powerful bullhorn available.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 06/19/2009 - 01:58 pm.

    If DFL members of the legislature are looking for something they CAN do, they might consider asking each rep and senator to lead a statewide recall effort in their districts. The number of signatures sufficient to recall is 25 percent of voters in the last election at which Pawlenty was elected.

    Then, without His Majesty’s presence at the top of the heap, perhaps those Republicans who believe he has gone far beyond any reasonable or moral effort at cost containment might be willing to help fix the damage he has done to the people of our state.

  9. Submitted by Eric Larson on 06/19/2009 - 02:02 pm.

    Couple of thoughts.
    Commentator #1 “…if 90% of Minnesotans were opposed to his ‘no new taxes’…..” I seem to remember that twice Mr. Pawlenty has went before the voters and said quite clearly, ‘no new taxes’. With one squishy wiggle on cig taxes, he has stuck to it and been approved by the voters, twice. Promise kept. Thanks Guv.

    We are starting to see just a few government entities visit the idea that non-union personel start working for less. Bravo! Next up Union contract negotiations. A microscopic few will “Flee to the higher paying private sector”. If they could leave in this market, they wouldn’t stick around in a better job market. Why cut services and positions when you can ask the employees to work for just a little less until things get better. That’s what my boss did. I took the deal. Some of my fellow workers are un-employed.

  10. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 06/19/2009 - 02:45 pm.

    Say, our handsome glib Prince would be a nice emperor; let’s promote him.

    Maybe someday an observant child will notice and tell the world that the emperor has no clothes. Until then, we can continue to ignore his nakedness.

  11. Submitted by Elizabeth Halvorson on 06/20/2009 - 12:31 am.

    I disagree that the legislature failed. I actually watched budget hearings and budget debate this year, and what I saw was a legislature trying hard to get answers and numbers from Pawlenty and his commissioners, and getting stonewalled all the way. At one hearing, the finance commissioner wouldn’t even tell the legislators which of a number of conflicting sets of figures was the one the governor was using. I don’t know WHAT the legislature could have done differently. In the end, they made cuts and balanced them with a small increase in income taxes for people making more than $300,000. Made sense to me.

    As for the meeting on Thursday, the article leaves out one important aspect: that questioning by legislators was able to elicit some information about the way the governor is using unallotment not only to cut the budget, but also to change policies that are in statute already. Pulling details from the commissioners was like pulling teeth, but the legislators persisted, and I think they deserve more credit than they’re getting.

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/20/2009 - 08:41 am.

    “I don’t know WHAT the legislature could have done differently. In the end, they made cuts and balanced them with a small increase in income taxes for people making more than $300,000.”

    The fact that the legislature was unable to find a strategy to succeed is broadly speaking why they failed. That is, why they were unable to protect the interests of the people who elected them, and who they are now talking about, now that it doesn’t matter.

    The governor was better at gaming the system. That’s fine if ability to play games is what we ask from our politicians. But there is are reasons why the legislature meets at the state capitol, not at the Metrodome, and maybe it’s up to us as Minnesotans and voters to start reminding our elected officials what some of those reasons are.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/22/2009 - 09:14 am.

    It seem that some primarily republican commentors here lack a basic understanding of check and balances in the US design of government. They seem to be under the completely bizarre impression that any legislative body that fails to produce a bill the executive will sign has “failed” it’s mission. I remind you, it is not the legislative body’s job to simply figure out what the executive wants and write it up for them. The MN legislature did not “fail” it’s mission, they in fact sent the governor a budget plan that was balanced to the penny.

    The fact that he vetoed it doesn’t mean they failed, it simply means the the legislative and executive branches could not agree how to deal with the budget crises. Had the legislature sent the governor the bill he wanted, they would have been failing to represent the people of MN who by all accounts wanted the budget resolved with a combination of cuts and new revenue. I remind the esteemed republicans participating here that we elect our representatives to work for the people, not the governor.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/22/2009 - 10:56 am.

    Unquestionably, the governor has been successful in pitching his narrative to the local media. I think Democrats should think very long and very hard about how and why that happened.

  15. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/22/2009 - 10:59 am.

    And I can tell you one basic reason why the governor was so successful in presenting his narrative; the DFL didn’t have a narrative of their own, so the governor’s was the only one available to fill up the vacuum.

  16. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 06/22/2009 - 01:36 pm.

    It is unfortunatethat the DFLers did not handle this session better. First, the DFLers waited until the last minute to pass the big budget bills and this left no time to negotiate. It would have been better to have those bills on Pawlenty’s desk three weeks before the end of the session. But no, the DFLers piddled away weeks on teeny, tiny little issues that irritated almost everyone.

    Also, the DFLers came out looking bad–especially galling is the big increase in spending on the arts. Sen. Cohen may have won points with the arts crowd by putting the arts funding in the heritage amendment but the DFLers will not win points with anyone else on this. Most of those I talk to thought it was callous and conniving of the DFLers to put the arts funding in the amendment in such a way that it was not clear to voters that they were voting for a big, big increase in funding for the arts.

    I think when all is said and done the DFLers are going to lose seats. The DFLers are not cutting waste in state government–and this is a huge issues. Minnesotans do not mind paying taxes as long as the money is not squandered. But, when layer upon layer of management, state government is too obese and citizens see it as a burden.

  17. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 06/23/2009 - 09:10 pm.

    Actually, the voters of Minnesota got what they voted for by voting for Republican Pawlenty or a third candidate. The voters (at some time in the past) supported line item veto and unallotment that made the governor able to ignore the legislature. The legislature was short 3 votes to override. That only left the going into special session option, which the public made clear that they did not want. So Minnesota now has what Minnesota voted for! Here is the pain and poor government that the “no new tax” pledge of Republicans and Republican Governor Pawlenty promised.

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