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Minnesota’s dysfunctional politics takes center stage

How dysfunctional? So dysfunctional that DFL and Republican leaders couldn’t even meet in the same city Tuesday. The DFL leaders held “a leadership summit” in St. Paul, while GOP leaders gathered in Eden Prairie.

So dysfunctional are Minnesota politics that DFL and Republican leaders couldn’t even meet in the same city Tuesday.

In fairness to DFLers, Republicans were invited to join what was billed as a leadership summit at the state Capitol. Current GOP leaders — Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem and House Minority Leader Kurt Zellars — said, “No thanks,” and met instead with business leaders in Eden Prairie in what was described as a “jobs summit.” Pawlenty took along most of his cabinet to the alternate meeting.

Worse than the rejection of the invitation to meet in St. Paul was the assumption by the governor that he knew the outcome of the meeting at the Capitol before it even was held.

“A predictable meeting with a predictable outcome,” he said. He went on to say that DFLers were only interested in protecting “the social welfare state.”

Brutally candid presentations
In fact, former Republican Govs. Al Quie and Arne Carlson were on hand at the state Capitol event, as was former conservative state Sen. David Jennings. Giving brutally candid presentations (PPT) were two nonpartisan officials, the state’s economist, Tom Stinson, and the state’s demographer, Tom Gillaspy.

Minnesota’s getting older, Gillaspy said, which means Minnesotans will be demanding more services, not fewer.

Tom Gillaspy
MinnPost/Daniel Corrigan
Tom Gillaspy

Minnesota can’t cut its way out of its budget problems, (PPT) said Stinson. Neither can it tax its way out.  It will take a combination of cuts, revenue increases and other reforms to bring stability to the state budget.

The deficit will be tougher than ever to solve in the 2012-13 biennium, everyone (except the absent Republicans) was saying. The projected $4.6 billion deficit for the 2010-2011 biennium was eliminated with one-time federal stimulus funds, a series of unallotments and accounting gimmicks in the last session.

The 2012-13 deficit is estimated at anywhere from $3 billion to $7 billion, and there won’t be $2.6 billion in stimulus funds to ease the pain. Many believe that the state has maxed out its flexibility on accounting shifts and that next legislative session many of the programs that Pawlenty unalloted will have to be at least partially restored.

The point? This St. Paul summit was not about how to increase the “social welfare state.” It was about how the state can increase productivity, cut costs and still provide services to an ever-aging population at a time when revenues will continue to lag.

But that growing deficit problem may be the least of Minnesota’s problems. The bigger problem may be how Minnesotans can find leaders who will make the hard decisions that lie ahead.

Arne Carlson
Arne Carlson

“Let me be blunt,” said Carlson. (There was laughter in the room, since bluntness is a Carlson trademark.) “To some extent, we have been practicing the politics of avoidance.”

That likely won’t end any time soon.  Many of the key leaders gathered in both St. Paul and Eden Prairie have their eyes on higher offices. Pols with visions of higher office don’t usually tell people things they don’t want to hear.

The people with lofty ambitions at the St. Paul meeting included House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who wants to be governor, and Sen. Tarryl Clark, who wants to go to Congress.

In Eden Prairie, Pawlenty looked and sounded more and more like a man with his eyes on the White House than on Minnesota. He’s off on a campaign trip to Virginia Thursday to campaign on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert McDonnell.

Hordes of other state senators and representatives also are either in — or about to enter — the gubernatorial race.

Public interest vs. personal political interest
Can people with big personal ambitions put Minnesota first?

Former DFL House Speaker Dee Long doesn’t think so.

“If you’re running for higher office, are you going to tell people that you need to raise their taxes?” Long said.

Quie spoke of how, in difficult times, political leaders always face a huge dilemma.

Al Quie
Pogo Press
Al Quie

“What’s good for the state,” he said, “may conflict with what’s good for self.”

If the big race in Minnesota is between state interest and self-interest, Tuesday’s dueling events showed that self-interest is in the lead. Nothing showed that more than Pawlenty’s absence from the Capitol, said Jennings, who currently is superintendent of schools in Chaska.

“The Legislature and the governor have the right to disagree, but they have to communicate,” said Jennings. “This breakdown of communications is destructive. It’s not good for Minnesota. That he’s not here today is a very serious problem. If they [the governor and legislative leaders] can’t fix that [relationship], we’re kidding ourselves about being able to communicate the size of the problem with the public. … That he’s not here is emblematic of where we are. It’s sad he wasn’t here. I’m not angry, just sad.”

Others, too, were bemoaning Pawlenty’s absence until former DFL House speaker and former U.S. Rep. Martin Olav Sabo cleared his gravelly voice.

“It’s not about the governor being here,” said Sabo. “It’s about the immense problem in 2011, not who or who isn’t here.”

But one more time. Why wasn’t Pawlenty at the summit?

Asked that question Tuesday, he used the same retort that he used when he initially scoffed at the idea of the summit weeks ago. There already was a summit, Pawlenty said. “The legislative session.” He said that Tuesday’s summit in St. Paul was essentially a DFL production “to admire the problems, not create solutions.”

Pawlenty, GOP pooh-pooh bleak assessments
Pawlenty pooh-poohs the statistics that Stinson and Gillaspy are using to underscore the breadth of Minnesota’s demographic and fiscal challenges.

“These forecasts bounce around,” said Pawlenty, brushing off the work of  the state’s longtime advisers.

Tom Stinson
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Tom Stinson

Republicans simply don’t buy Stinson’s charts that show Minnesota can’t economically grow out of the deficit.

“Let businesss flourish,”said Senjem at the Eden Prairie meeting. “Taxes and regulations are counterproductive.”

Added Zellars, “We’re going to the job providers to find out what they need. Business runs our country.”

Back at the St. Paul meeting, though, the views were broader. The former leaders struggled with current leaders over how to make Minnesotans understand the depth of the state’s economic problems and other pressing issues. Everything from achievement gaps in education to the extremely high cost of caring for the elderly in their final months of life was on the table.

Former Gov. Wendell Anderson offered one policy suggestion: raising taxes on cigarettes to the higher levels they have in Wisconsin. On a lighter note, the former DFL governor also cracked that he was among the few who didn’t regret that Gov. Pawlenty wasn’t on hand. “I played hockey against him. I’m glad he wasn’t here.”

Quie — remember, he’s a conservative Republican — seemed to endorse the need to deal with complicated end-of-life issues. The former governor talked of how his church recently acquired a defibrillator.

“I wanted them to put a sign on it that said, ‘If Al passes out during service, don’t revive,’ ” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to go. … The issue [expensive care for the very old] needs to be talked about. Where’s our moral boundary?”

Quie also put forward one of the few suggestions on how DFL legislative leaders might be able to make progress with Pawlenty in budget talks.  He suggested that DFLers give Pawlenty the corporate tax cuts that Republicans always want in exchange for expanding the sales tax to clothes and services.

Carlson also came up with an idea for getting all parties and all leaders involved. He suggested that all four legislative caucuses and the governor each come up with a proposal and take those plans to the people. Let the next election be based on “substance and not just politics.”

“Each plan will inflict pain,” Carlson said. “But evasion is not leadership.”

But evasion is what we have. At this point, our leaders can’t even agree to meet in the same city.

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