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Legislature passes bonding bill: Lots of drama, but no final act

Minnesota’s House and Senate passed a $1 billion bonding bill last night and the governor — by letter — promised a veto. There are enough votes to override a veto in the Senate, but probably not in the House. So what are we left with?

Going in to their evening session last night, legislators knew what the outcome of the bonding bill vote would be.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Going in to their evening session last night, legislators knew what the outcome of the bonding bill vote would be.

Just when you think Minnesota state government can’t get any more bizarre, it does.

A quick summary of Monday night’s events surrounding a $1 billion bonding bill:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty did a long-distance, pre-emptive veto. A big man, Dave Senjem, the Senate minority leader from Rochester, danced. Another big man, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, leaped. Several Republicans in the House accused DFLers of acting like Washington politicians, which was interesting given the fact the governor they swear allegiance to was finishing up a long Washington trip. Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, asked his Republican colleagues to stop calling the bonding bill “a debt bill.” The next Republican up, Rep. Mark Buesgens of Jordan, called it “a debt bill.” And all the while, DFL Reps. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis and Mary Murphy sat at their chamber desks and chatted about the weather and vegetarians.

The bottom line is that both the House and Senate passed the $1 billion bonding bill that the governor, by letter [PDF], promised he’ll veto. There are enough votes to over-ride a veto in the Senate, but probably not in the House.

So what are we left with?

Nothing. Which pretty much passes for state government these days.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of theater, with Pawlenty, as he has for nearly eight years, playing the leading role.

His pre-emptive veto by letter from Washington arrived at the Capitol around 6:30 p.m., or about when the legislators were coming to work for the evening session.

This raised the question: Is it really necessary for the governor of Minnesota to even have an office in the state?

State Sen. Keith Langseth
State Sen. Keith Langseth

“I’m surprised he wasn’t in India or China or something,” muttered Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who headed the Senate bonding committee.

Langseth has been around a long time and seen a lot of things, but he didn’t think he’d ever seen a pre-emptive veto sent via the Internet to the Capitol.

“He just doesn’t care,” said Langseth. “He’s playing to a different drummer. All he’s going to do is veto.”

‘In the dark of night’
Republicans in both the House and Senate were quick to criticize the fact that the Senate-House conference committee wrapped up this bonding bill sometime after 1 a.m. Monday morning.

“In the dark of night and out of the public eye,” said Rep. Kurt Zellers, the House minority leader. “Our members, his staff, weren’t in the process.”

But isn’t the governor sort of out of Minnesota sight when he’s in Washington? Isn’t it hard for him to be in the process when he’s out politicking?

“He’s got an office in D.C.,” said Zellers. “He’s got a staffer out there….I don’t think his physical presence is needed.”

Actually, some DFLers almost seemed to agree that it matters not whether this Minnesota governor is in Minnesota.

Both Langseth and Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul and the House’s bonding bill chief, said they had a meeting with the governor earlier this month. They said they couldn’t get him to commit to negotiating.

“We got up to leave the meeting and he said, ‘I’d be happy to negotiate with you,”’ recalled Hausman.

State Rep. Alice Hausman
State Rep. Alice Hausman

Hausman said she jumped at the opportunity, suggesting that the governor should say what he wanted ($90 million for creating more space at the Moose Lake sexual offender “treatment” center where no one is ever treated) and should take out six or seven items he was most upset by.

“I said we could get the bill down to $875 million and we have a deal,” she said. “I said he has to guarantee one thing, his signature on the bill. That’s the way it worked with Arne Carlson.”

But that apparently was the stumbling block.

Instead, Pawlenty sent his letter that included this graph: “Your final product shows virtually no interest in taking our concerns seriously and the DFL majority’s attitude and approach regarding the assembly of this bonding bill has been dismissive.”

Memorable moments
So going in to their evening session, the pols all knew what the outcome is going to be.

Still, there were memorable moments.

For example, there was this Senjem, the big man, dancing in the Senate.

See, Senjem’s home city, Rochester, is to get a nice big hunk of money for a convention center in the bonding bill.

On the other hand, Senjem never likes to be out of step with Pawlenty.

So what to do?

Dance, baby, dance.

State Sen. Dave Senjem
State Sen. Dave Senjem

“I want to stand and suggest we could have done better,” Senjem said. “But I’ll vote yes to honor the efforts of my community. That said, the bill is much too high.”

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Does politics ever get better than that?

There also were so moments of dandy humor in the House.

For example, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, was going on and on and on and on about the evils of the bonding bill.

“We’re paying for music halls [renovations for the Ordway and Orchestra Hall] while Minnesota parents can’t afford piano or violin lessons….We’re trying to plant trees and there are people who can’t make house payments….”

And then he ripped $5 million for a project that includes a pottery museum in Chatfield.

That’s when Davids, a conservative whose district includes Chatfield, bounced up in his chair.

House speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher couldn’t help herself. She interrupted Drazkowski’s on-ending complaints, noting, with a laugh, that Davids had jumped when the Chatfield project was ripped.

“This is a bi-partisan attack,” said Drazkowski, and then he continue with his litany of complaints.

All the while, Kahn and Murphy chatted on.

As it turned out, Davids did vote against the bonding bill, after supporting it the first time through the House a week ago.

“They [Republicans] are under tremendous pressure,” said Hausman, adding that Davids had said he’d face endorsement opposition if he support the bill.

‘Threatening letters’
There seemed to be genuine anger in both chambers, most of it surrounding Pawlenty.

DFLers, of course, believe Pawlenty’s political ambitions are the problem.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, blistered the governor on the House floor.

“I’m tired of threatening letters on our desks,” she said.

Saying he doesn’t understand, or care about, the legislative process, she challenged House Republicans.

“We should do what our constituents send us here to do,” she said. “Your job is not to do what your governor wants.”

But other Republicans blistered DFLers, accusing them of working only to make Pawlenty look bad.

“If stuffing the governor is more important than solutions, than they’re getting what they want,” said Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague.

What remains to be seen is who will face the most pressure now. Bonding bills bring together a huge cross section of Minnesotans. It’s the one time in the legislative process when Chambers of Commerce leaders, community leaders and labor unions are arm-in-arm.

For the moment, they’ve got nothing.

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