GOP minority more than happy to let DFL legislators go it alone on budget cuts

To many pols, being in the minority means never having to take an unpopular vote.

That brings up an interesting situation now that it’s time to try to erase the $1.2 billion budget deficit in the current biennium: Despite the fact that many Republican legislators long have been critical of “big-spending DFLers,” most Republicans likely will oppose spending cuts proposed by DFLers.

The theory: “It’s the majority’s job to govern.”

Long tradition that works both ways
This cavalier attitude works both ways. When the Republicans were in control of the House, most DFLers refused to support legislation that might have been seen as necessary but unpopular.

But because they are in charge now, DFLers are finding this Republican behavior rather irritating.

“We send spending-cut bills through [committees] with only Democrats voting yes on them,” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. “They’re not voting in support of any of the cut bills. If I were a tea party member and found out that they’re voting ‘no’ on all the cuts, wouldn’t I wonder about hypocrisy?”

Rep. Alice Hausman
Rep. Alice Hausman

Perhaps. But again, understand this why-should-I-help-them attitude didn’t just start this session.

Bob Vanasek, a DFLer who now is a lobbyist, was the House speaker under Govs. Rudy Perpich and Arne Carlson from 1987 to 1991.

“It would be hard to argue that it’s not always been a common practice,” Vanasek said.

But, typically, it’s an unspoken practice. A member of the minority doesn’t simply say, “I’m not voting for that bill because it’s their problem.” It’s more subtle than that.

“You can always find an excuse not to vote for something,” Vanasek said.

GOP can use Pawlenty as ‘shield’
In this case, Republicans frequently are hiding behind the shield of Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Some of the cuts that DFLers are proposing — and are expected to continue to propose — are different from those proposed by the governor. For example, Pawlenty is proposing nearly double the cuts in Local Government Aid from those proposed by the DFL. Down the line, it’s expected that the DFL will even propose making some cuts to K-12 education, which the governor claims to leave unharmed.

Rep. Larry Howes
Rep. Larry Howes

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, is one of the last remaining moderates in his caucus. For example, he supported the DFL bonding bill, which was slashed with line-item vetoes by the governor. Yet, he makes it clear he will not support many of the DFLers’ expected budget cuts.

“It’s their job to govern,” said Howes of the DFLers’ role. “I don’t want to support cutting K-12 education or cutting health care.”

“It’s their job.” That refrain is heard over and over when Republicans talk about their obligations in balancing the budget.

“Give us the gavels [chairmanships] and we’ll be happy to come up with a [budget-cutting] plan,” said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. “We’ve had very little input. They shoot down our amendments, they shoot down our bills, they shoot down the things we think are important — now they want our support? I’m not going to vote to cut K-12 education. I’m not going to vote to close nursing homes.”

Of course, there are a couple of things that are a bit disingenuous about Davids’ comments.

Rep. Greg Davids
Rep. Greg Davids

For starters, Republicans didn’t earn “the gavels” during the past couple of elections. Voters put DFLers in the majority. The majority party wins the gavels.

Secondly, though Republicans are a distinct minority in the Legislature, they do have the governor’s office, and for seven-and-a-half years, Pawlenty has made it clear that any state tax increases are non-negotiable.

“When the governor and the Legislature all come from the same party, it’s almost expected that the minority will vote against any of the major bills,” said Vanasek. “This situation is a little more awkward. The governor proposes cuts. The majority says it will make cuts. Even if they aren’t exactly the same cuts, the end result is the same. To me, that makes it a little more difficult for the minority party to just say no.”

Former House Speaker Vanasek can relate to situation today
Vanasek, it should be pointed out, was speaker in a situation very similar to today’s dynamics. His party was in control in the Legislature, but the Republicans had Arne Carlson in the governor’s office.

Even as surly as Carlson could be, there were not the communications difficulties that exist now.

Bob Vanasek
Creative Commons
Bob Vanasek

“In 1991, we had a deficit that had to be worked out,” Vanasek said. “In those days, we were able to negotiate. I’m not saying it was easy, but in the end we were able to work things out.”

Republicans have little empathy for any woes the DFLers might claim.

“They’re dysfunctional, incapable of governing,” said Davids. “They tell us, ‘Give us your plan?’ Well, where’s their plan? We’ve seen the governor’s plan, but we still haven’t seen their plan.”

The nine-term legislator recalled the days when Republicans were in the majority. He said they expected no help from the DFL minority.

“Sometimes when you’re in the majority, you have to take a vote while holding your nose,” said Davids. “You have to take the sort of votes where you go home and take a shower and hope you feel better in the morning.”

When you’re in the minority?

“It’s their baby,” said Davids.

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

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/19/2010 - 09:36 am.

    It is “fun” to watch the DFL try to suppress their “tax and spend” agenda. Having to propose “cuts” instead of their persistent cry for new taxes will be a pleasure watch.

    What will be interesting is if the DFL candidates in the fall will run on their ingrained principles of raising taxes and growing the size of MN government. They probably will try and “cover-up” their tax and spend agenda with the code words of “revenue enhancements” and “investments in our children.”

    Politics as usual…

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/19/2010 - 10:03 am.

    It’s interesting how, in their new “just say no to everything” operating style, the Republicans in Minnesota are now ceding their long-standing claim of being the party of fiscal responsibility to the Democrats.

    This is truly going to historic. At a time when people across the state are struggling financially, the Democrats will be able to campaign in the fall with the accurate claim that “We faced a huge budget shortfall and, very regretfully found it necessary to vote for cuts in important government programs, but despite how much they knew you, their friends and neighbors were struggling, our Republican colleagues refused to cut anything.”

    Let it be known that it is the Democrats who are the party of fiscal responsibility, the party which will “right size” the state government so that it meets the needs of those who are in need as much as possible, without damaging those who are struggling, but still doing OK.

    The Republicans, on the other hand, are just the party of knee-jerk, unthinking “no,” and care nothing for how their “no’s” affect the individual citizens of the state nor the state as a whole.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 03/19/2010 - 11:06 am.

    You are right Ron, it is politics as usual.

    Pawlenty did it with expanding “fees.” Remember the “health care fee” plus the increases in all kinds of license fees, registration fees and so on? Look no further than the annual registration fee you pay for your vehicle(s) to the Department of Public Safety.

    The cries for reducing the size of state government are also farcical. The Pawlenty administration is in the last year of what will be an eight-year run. Who do you suppose is running these agencies and responsible for overseeing agency staffing levels?

    Pawlenty appointees, that’s who.

    Sure, there have been on-again, off-again hiring freezes, attritions, etc., but state government employment in Minnesota has grown from 86,000 in January, 2003 to 97,600 in January, 2010.

    [For you stat geeks, my source for the above data is Bureau of Labor Statistics Series ID: SMU27000009092000001]

    Government certainly is not the all-encompassing solution for everything (nor should it be), but many of the same folk who publicly favor shrinking government frequently set that aside when it serves their political interests back home.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/19/2010 - 12:33 pm.

    Fee for service is a great way to fund government operations; we should incorporate it as the main funding mechanism.

    When you pay a fee to have your roads paved, it’s highly likely your roads will be paved.

    When you pay into a pot to “keep the lights on”, you might get an advertising blitz for the virtues of tap water, or a putting green on roof tops. You’ll see any and all manner of crazy things; in the daytime…..

    …’cause the lights will be off.

    Good point about government staffing levels, though. Hopefully Tom Emmer will do a better job with the follow-through than T-Paw.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/19/2010 - 01:28 pm.

    Thomas: What you call “fee for service” is actually what taxation is. Everybody puts money in the pot; everybody has access to the public infrastructure (roads, bridges, education, libraries, parks & rec., etc.) their taxes are used to build and maintain.

  6. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 03/19/2010 - 03:29 pm.

    Maybe there should have been a fee for schools…wait, those are called private schools and a lot of kids can’t afford them, and Special Ed lids don’t get in (they water down the scores). Well, maybe a fee based police force… wait that’s called a security agency or a gated community. Or a fee based fire dept. where you get better service if you pay a little more… oh wait in that case— I’m toast.

  7. Submitted by Brad Robinson on 03/19/2010 - 03:39 pm.

    By the way, I once worked in a small community where a school board member was always in the minority and always voted for pro-educational, pro-teacher, even pro-spending issues as they arose. He was consistent in every vote and very public in his support of schools. His vote never carried any weight because he was always in the minority.

    Then.. a couple school board members who advocated building up the school, setting teacher contracts at a level with other neighboring districts, updating the technology dept., etc. were elected.

    Suddenly this pro-education guy did a complete 180. No to this, no to that, opposing things he had supported previously. Suddenly he had to take responsibility for his positions because they would actually happen! He would be now responsible for the implementation of his proposals.

    Somehow, I see a parallel.

  8. Submitted by David Willard on 03/20/2010 - 07:47 pm.

    I remember a few years ago when the City Of Minneapolis did a tantrum when their budget (from the state) was not raised by the proper amount and they screamed CUTS! Then they closed the wading pools in the summer and blamed others for that. Never mind they had and have ample opportunities to scale back, or at least hold. Why must they alwyas increase their budget while real businesses who actually produce stuff AND PAY THEIR taxes are forced to cut down? Please do not give me the line about in bad times we must increase government services, because in good times the government of Minneapolis and Minnesota bloats even more!

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