Who’s misreading whom?
In the never-ending train wreck at the state Capitol, it should come as no surprise that signals between the office of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature continue to be missed, presumably at the expense of Minnesotans.
This time, the communications snafu was over the bonding bill, which was stripped Monday of $319 million by Pawlenty’s line-item vetoes.
Start with the DFLers, who thought, or at least hoped, they were getting a quasi-positive message from the governor after they took a deep breath and then revised the original bonding bill they had passed.
(The governor, you’ll recall, wrote a letter (PDF) on Feb. 9 to DFL bonding bill leaders saying that he would veto the entire bill, if it wasn’t cut. His office says that was one of many warnings. But the big warning — a rare, pre-emptive veto — was sent to legislative leaders on Feb. 22, the day that the Legislature was set to pass a $1 billion bill. The governor sent leaders that veto vow while he was politicking in Washington, D.C. The Legislature passed the bill anyway.)
Rather than face that fate, DFLers cut some of their priorities and replaced them with some things the governor said he had to have. The hope of DFLers was that by giving Pawlenty some of what he wanted — money for the expansion of the Moose Lake treatment facility for sexual predators, a few million for purchasing land for a park on Lake Vermillion — that he would be temperate in his use of line-item vetoes. They assumed that the governor would cut no more than $250 million from their $1 billion bill.
Did DFLers misread Pawlenty?
But the DFL assumptions, it turns out, were not based on anything but hope.
“All we could get from him,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, “is that we had given him a bill he could work with. He had always mentioned $750 million. The $680 million is a shock.”
So that’s the first misreading.
But Hausman and Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, believe the governor is doing some misreading of his own. The governor seems to believe that after his hardball cutting, there will be a second bonding bill — a mini-bill — passed in this session.
“I think he absolutely guaranteed [Republican legislators] that there would be a second bill,” she said. “But that just can’t pass.”
Indeed, the governor’s spokesman, Brian McClung, said Monday that DFLers should sit down with their Republican brothers and sisters and work out a sequel to the bonding bill that now is littered with line-item vetoes.
“They should meet with the Republican leaders and engage them, learn a little about their concerns, and then if they want to proceed from there after they have bipartisan support, certainly we’re open to talking to them,” he said.
McClung was doing the talking Monday because the governor was busy politicking in Florida. Pawlenty may be suffering a little fatigue because he’s been busily jumping on and off planes. He was in Florida on Saturday politicking, came back Sunday to do his vetoing and then jumped on a plane again and returned to Florida for more campaigning.
Before returning to Florida, however, he did leave a letter (PDF) criticizing legislators and outlining his cuts.
Why couldn’t a mini-bonding bill pass?
Is governor’s office misreading DFLers?
“It can’t get the votes,” said Hausman. She explained that if you’re a DFL rep whose favorite project was vetoed by the governor, you’re not likely to vote for a bonding bill filled with items that appeal to the governor and Republican legislators.
Howes believes Hausman is correct in that assessment.
“You can only go back and forth so many times,” Howes said. “I just don’t think it [a second bonding bill] is feasible.”
A moment here to sing the praises of Howes. In a political environment in which mind-numbing partisan rhetoric rules, Howes, the minority leader on the bonding committee, is refreshingly independent.
Howes didn’t necessarily buy into the entire $1 billion bonding package, yet ended up being empathetic to the DFL convictions that with low-interest rates and contractors making low bids, it was a reasonable time to invest more than usual.
He paid a price for daring to support the big bonding bill. He said he has been hanged in effigy back in his home district.
Howes played a behind-the-scenes role in trying to help shape the bonding bill, meeting last Friday with Tom Hanson, Pawlenty’s finance commissioner.
Three bonding plans
He carried three plans to Hanson.
Plan 1: At the request of the House Republican caucus, Howes carried a $200 million bonding bill to Hanson. The bill covered flood mitigation projects and the Moose Lake expansion and little else.
The Republicans seemed to believe that the $200 million would be a starting point. They wanted that passed and then thought they could sit down with DFLers on a second bonding bill.
Hanson, though, didn’t think Pawlenty would like this deal, given the fact that he’d originally proposed a $680 million bill.
Plan 2: A $775 million bill that Howes put together himself, believing, like many DFLers, that the governor would ultimately accept a bill that high.
Plan 3: A bill worth roughly $680 million, which is where the governor landed. But Howes said his $680 million was dramatically different from the bill the governor shaped with his veto pen.
Examples of the differences?
“I didn’t have money for the Ordway [Center for the Performing Arts] and Orchestra Hall for starters,” said Howes of his Plan 3 proposal.
He was surprised that the governor hammered MNSCU projects but held on to bonding money for the Ordway and Orchestra Hall projects. “Maybe some rich Republicans go there,” Howes said.
Of all the winners and losers Monday, no region was hit harder than St. Cloud. The city not only lost $13 million for work on its convention center but also a $44 million science and technology project on the St. Cloud State campus.
Rep. Larry Haws, a DFLer from St. Cloud, admitted he wasn’t surprised that the governor eliminated all convention center funds across the state. But he was shocked at the $134 million in hits state colleges took.
“We are always hearing [from Pawlenty] that we have to be competitive globally, we need scientists, we have to be bold, that education is so important,” Haws said. “It just seems so illogical.”
Disgusted as Hausman was — especially over the MNSCU cuts — she is trying to find a positive in the negative quagmire at the Capitol.
“We do have $680 million,” she said. “There’s a lot of good stuff in there.”
Hard feelings, bleak outlook
But there are ever more hard feelings.
There appears to be no way, in the current atmosphere at the Capitol, that any work of significance can be done.
Even Howes, the rare moderate in St. Paul, is discouraged.
“I don’t see any way we get out of here with a balanced budget,” Howes said of the atmosphere stinking up state government.
There are times, he said, when he thinks legislators should just return home and let the voters decide the state’s future in November.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.