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.
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, 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.
“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 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.
“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.