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

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 to erase the state’s $1.2 billion budget deficit.

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.