Senate majority leader Larry Pogemiller is in the spotlight as never before.
As a new legislative session begins today with one over-riding problem — the budget deficit — the 58-year-old Pogemiller is the one key player in St. Paul not seeking higher office.
Look at the lineup: Gov. Tim Pawlenty, out to prove he’s the taxpayer’s best friend as he runs (unofficially, of course) for president. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher out to prove to DFL activists in her gubernatorial bid that she can be a progressive leader in hard times. Sen. Tom Bakk, head of the powerful tax committee, needing to show that he can be the pro-jobs, pro-business sort of leader who would actually appeal to a cross-section of middle-of-the-road Minnesotans as a gubernatorial candidate. Tarryl Clark, the senate’s assistant majority leader, is running for U.S. Congress. Reps. Tom Rukavina and Paul Tissen are running for governor, as are two Republican reps, Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer.
So much personal ambition, so many state problems.
A passerby asked Pogemiller Wednesday about the impact of all those ambitions on the session that begins today.
He threw up his hands.
“I’ve just decided to take everyone at their word that they’re trying to do the best they can do [as legislators] to solve the problems,” Pogemiller said. “What else can you do?”
Truth be told, Pogemiller is running, too. He needs something good to happen to convince Minnesotans that the Legislature is capable of solving problems, with or without the help of a governor, who has refused to compromise for seven years. The Legislature must be effective, or DFLers will pay a price in legislative races in November. If DFLers lose Senate seats, Pogemiller will have a hard time convincing them he should remain as the leader of their caucus.
What a circus.
‘All in the same bathtub’
Do you understand why Minnesotans think that state government is incapable of dealing with the state’s problems?
“We’ll have to prove otherwise,” said Pogemiller.
If nothing else, Pogemiller seems confident as this session begins. He seems to think members on both sides of the aisle we’ll recognize “we’re all in the same bathtub.” If the Republicans really want to cut the state out of this mess, he’s ready to join them, or call their bluff.
For starters, Pogemiller is ready to propose merging two departments, the Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Department of Labor and Industry. It just so happens these two departments are headed by two popular Republicans, former House Speaker Steve Sviggum at Labor and Industry and former Pawlenty chief of staff Dan McElroy at DEED.
“We’ll create one agency, focused on jobs,” said Pogemiller. “I know there’ll be some Republicans saying, ‘There he goes again, he doesn’t like McElroy so look what he wants to do.’ That’s not it at all. We need to cut. We need to consolidate and reform. It’s clear, whatever we’re doing on a state job strategy, it’s not working. If it’s not working let’s do something else.”
And that’s just the beginning. Cutting’s not a problem.
“We can’t say we can’t cut,” said Pogemiller. “We can cut. But what we need to do is turn the public discussion to this: Is it a wise cut?”
And there’s one thing Pogemiller so desperately wants the public to understand, and that is the governor really hasn’t held the line on tax increases at all.
A little example:
“We tried to do a 7 per cent cut in the state courts,” said Pogemiller. “Pawlenty, everybody, fought like hell. We can’t do that!”
The cuts were restored — by creating more fees.
“You know how much it costs when you get a parking ticket in Minneapolis?” he asked.
“Forty-two dollars. Some poor citizen puts four quarters in the meter instead of five and he ends up with a $42 ticket. But it’s not the city of Minneapolis that’s getting that. Twenty dollars of that goes to the state. Not a tax increase. Just a fee.”
That’s the little example. The big one is k-12 education. The governor again is saying he’ll propose a budget with no cuts to public education — and no tax increases. But the fact is, the same governor shifted $2 billion in education payments.
“He’s got no way to pay for that shift,” said Pogemiller. “That’s not a shift in my book, that’s a cut.”
Oh, how he wants the public to get that. How he wants to pull the Teflon shield away from the gov.
“No more shifts, no more phony bonds,” said Pogemiller. “If you’re really for cuts, then put them on the table. What’s being done [with the budget] is a travesty.”
All of this brings us to a main point. It is said, over and over again, by people in the governor’s office, by Pogemiller’s fellow legislators, by custodians at the Capitol, that Pogemiller and Pawlenty cannot get along. That they have a deep dislike for each other.
So how’s the relationship with the governor, senator?
“It’s cordial,” Pogemiller said.
“The issues we have are not personal,” Pogemiller said. “He’s a pleasant person. When I’m taking somebody on a tour [of the Capitol] and we see each other, he comes over and says hello. He’s easy to talk to. But I have to say he doesn’t have the best communication skills, but we get along fine.”
Pogemiller does seem to acknowledge the fact that in his last months in office, Pawlenty will not be willing to raise taxes.
So, what the liberal from Minneapolis says he’ll ask for are REAL cuts to get to balance the $1.2 billion hole in the current budget. That includes cutting k-12. Pogemiller voted for cutting k-12 last year, he’ll do it again this year, he said. But he will DEMAND that the governor and some Republican legislators join in the real cutting.
‘Let’s get real’
It’s hard to tell if he’s sincere on this, or if it’s a bit of gamesmanship, an attempt to back Republicans into a corner.
At times, this idea of cutting even sacred cows seems genuine.
“I’m saying, ‘Let’s get real,”’ said Pogemiller. “I’m a progressive. I’m a liberal. But this is a moment for progressives to make the tough decisions. We have to bring stability to the budget so when the economy does come back, we’re in a position to re-invest wisely.”
So cut away, he said.
“We’ll have to do it in pieces,” he said. “We can’t have one big bill that solves the problem. We start with $300 to $400 million in cuts. We can do that. Get that one signed and move on to the next $300 to $400 million. That’s going to be a lot harder. And then it’s that last $300 to $400 million. That’s going to be real hard. How do we get it? The governor has to be there. He has to fight for it. The Republicans have to be there.”
But of course, this is the year of personal ambition for so many pols.
“At this moment, everyone needs to step back and problem solve. Solutions have to be above politics,” said Pogemiller with a straight face.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.