2010 Legislature: So many problems, so many candidates

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.

Larry Pogemiller
Larry Pogemiller

“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.”

Education cuts
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.

Cordial? Really?

“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.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 02/04/2010 - 11:29 am.

    Excellent piece, Doug Grow. We readers learn what the problems are for the state legislature and some possible solutions. Refreshing that we aren’t just getting sound bites and slogans.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/04/2010 - 11:32 am.

    Hold on to your hats; I agree with Pogemiller.

    The Governor needs to lead and be seen leading. K-12 education consumes 40% of the taxes the state takes in and there is simply no way to avoid paring that down.

    But cutting the budget isn’t enough.

    Tim needs to pair the cuts with concrete suggestions for the public schools to follow to make better use of the funds that are available. Pointing out the glaring flaws in a system that spends more than $12,000 per student to return a 45% success rate as in SPPS isn’t rocket science.

    He also needs to cut LGA to cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul that have viable business tax bases they are simply abusing and misusing.

    There are hundreds of cities that have never received a penny of LGA, and they are faring as well as anywhere else through the hard work of dedicated city leaders that actually manage their budgets.

    Meanwhile, in the biggest cities in the state, LGA has been morphed from another well intentioned program to help small communities without enough businesses to maintain core governmental services like roads, police, fire into a slush fund for leftist schemers like RT Rybak and Chris Coleman to plunder at will.

    Enough; the party’s over.

    I also agree with leftists who are saying that it’s not enough to simply say no, it’s time to step up and take ownership of thoughtful budgetary restraint and wise management. The people can see the country is in a financial quagmire, and we are ready to listen to a reasoned voice of conservative sanity.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/04/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    Tom: Have your property taxes risen? The reason is that the portion of YOUR property taxes collected by the state to provide aid to cities like, for instance, St Paul and Minneapolis, with large populations of non-English-speaking immigrants, poor people and homeless people is what Pawlenty has cut year after year.

    Pawlenty’s remarks a few days ago clearly showed his intention to — again — cut state expenditures to those most in need and least able to help themselves.

    George Bush attended a dinner with the Club for Growth (the 500 richest of the rich cigar-chomping and chubby corporate leaders) and called them his “base.” Is Tim P. attending the Tea Party Convention? He could say the same to the Angry Ones who think taxes are theft.

  4. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 02/04/2010 - 01:14 pm.

    Isn’t there any room for moderation? When I have personal budget shortfall at home, I have limited ways to plug the hole: reduce spending and increase income (and if I “shift” bills by postponing payment, I better be darn sure I will be able to pay more later to catch up to my responsibilities) . I suggest there is a way to approach our state shortfall the same way. Geez, do we have to be so polarized?

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/04/2010 - 03:07 pm.

    Brad, you have listed an option not available to everyone I know. How do you propose to increase your income? If you’re like most of us, you’re working long hours and have probably had to accept no increase in pay at best, or a pay cut as is very common.

    In my house, we have cut spending, and will continue to cut it as long as our economic situation demands it. It’s not a matter of polarization; it’s life in the real world.

    Bernice, my city council had proposed to raise our taxes by the maximum allowed amount, until my neighbors and I appeared before them at a truth in taxation meeting and directed them to go back and sharpen their pencils. The result was a very minimum increase which they could justify clearly. They also acknowledged that next year they could not rely on another increase.

    Bringing taxation closer to home is an opportunity to take charge of our lives. Some waste it, others grab it with both hands and make use of it to make government operate more efficiently and accountably. You’d be surprised how quickly the specious excuses commonly proffered, such as those you’ve listed, melt away before the face of a determined audience of taxpayers demanding solid, fact based answers.

  6. Submitted by dan buechler on 02/04/2010 - 06:26 pm.

    Thom, you could have your crazy aunt move in and share the rent.

  7. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 02/04/2010 - 10:41 pm.

    The governor has been rolling deficits over for the last eight years. The state has plenty of read ink and a governor who has not made a lot of headway leading Minnesota back into the black.

    We want to talk about the politics of politics and avoid any substantive discussions. We do not have any easy and exceptable answers on the policy side. For years we’ve been practicing avoidance. How can we avoid hard decisions. Endless postponement, call it a shift or a deferral, call it borrowing. All those deferrals are delayed tax increases. And then your hoping that they will happen on someone else’s watch.

    We as a state have not recognized that we have a long term problem and until you recognize that, you can’t even discuss what the solutions are. Nobody can agree on the facts. Because the numbers are so bad (five billion) there seems to be a political understanding. The DFL doesn’t want to talk about it when they’re trying to spend more on education. And the GOP doesn’t want to talk about it because that would put tax increases on the table. So you have a bipartisan agreement not to talk about the most important problem facing the state.

    You’ve got a governor who is focused on how do I run for president and face up to the real financial challenges of Minnesota. So he’ll defer those decisions until he’s out of office. This is a case of political ambition becoming a substitute for good governance.

    Will the governor have the leadership and political courage to make the difficult and unpopular cuts? His fiscally conservative rhetoric says one thing. The question to me, is whether his plan of action will match his conservative rhetoric?

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