Frustrated Capitol press corps tries — unsuccessfully — to get legislative leaders off same old talking points

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, president of the Ruth Institute, testifies against same-sex marriage during Friday's hearing on a constitutional amendment.

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, president of the Ruth Institute, testifies against same-sex marriage during Friday’s hearing on a constitutional amendment.

With just a little more than three weeks left in the legislative session, the politicians seem to be doing fine.  But some of the Capitol reporters are starting to crack.

They actually seem to be expecting direct answers to basic questions about how the governor and the Legislature are ever going to resolve their differences before May 23.

This morning, for example, at the weekly media briefing with legislative leaders, some of the scribes seemed to expect the pols to abandon their talking points.

Those talking points have been clear since January:

• The governor says no budget without new revenue.

• Republicans say no budget with new revenue.

• DFL legislators say the governor’s right and Republicans are out of control and can’t even get along with each other.

• Republican legislators say the process is moving beautifully.


A normal start and then …
Everything started off in normal fashion this morning.  Republicans fired off their talking points.

“We’re focused like a laser on budget issues,” said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, adding that discussions about constitutional amendments on such things as gay marriage and voter identification are not a distraction. (The proposed amendment banning gay marriage received its first hearing today and won committee approval.)

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch also said Republicans in the Senate are “focused like a laser” on the budget, although she admitted that many in her caucus got “all revved up” by this week’s visit by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

That’s when reporters started to show they’ve heard the same stuff too many times. They started wanting non-“talking point” answers.

Someone, for example, asked  Republican leaders about the questions  they raised over the  “constitutionality” of Gov. Mark Dayton’s request that House and Senate conference committees get budget proposals to him by next Friday so that he and the Legislature will have 17 days left to negotiate their differences.

It was the Republicans who made that a constitutional issue in a letter today. The Repubs unveiled their Constitution specialist, Rep. Doug Wardlow, of Eagan to explain what’s wrong with Dayton’s  request. (Wardlow, it should be noted, is a 10ther, who believes that the federal health care reform is in violation of the 10th Amendment.)

The governor, Wardlow said, is “usurping legislative power’’ as it appears in Article III, Section 1, of the state Constitution and in Article IV, Section 23, with this request.

The Republican leaders nodded their heads somberly at Wardlow’s assessment. The only weakness of the assessment is that it seems to be based on something that the governor wasn’t seeking.

But then, after all the Republican talk about the governor’s limited constitutional role in the budget process, Sen. Geoff Michel turned the whole discussion in the opposite direction.

The budget dispute, Michel said, won’t get resolved “unless the governor rolls up his sleeves and gets involved with the Legislature.”

So then a reporter asked Michel when Republicans “will get off their talking points” so that negotiations can actually begin.

“These are not talking points,’’ said Michel with a straight face.

Koch enthusiastically agreed.  Republicans aren’t just expressing talking points — they’re stating truths, she said, adding that the Legislature expects to get its work done by May 23 but there will be “no new revenues’’ in the budget.

The state will live within the amount “that’s in the checkbook,” Koch said. These aren’t talking points — “these are things I know,’’ she said.

DFL leaders try a little humor
And as the Republicans faded away, they were replaced by DFL legislative leaders, who were going to try to be sort of funny on this fine spring day.

For example, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen started off by noting that it’s Arbor Day and that the DFL caucus — thanks to the generosity of Rep. Rick Hansen of South St. Paul — is going to plant 100 black walnut trees this weekend.

This was an obvious shot at the Republicans and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, who earlier in the session wanted the state to make some money by chopping down black walnut trees in state parks.

This proposal, which mercifully died, and the tree plantings allowed Thissen this morning to talk about how Republicans “want to take an ax to the state budget.”

It should be noted that Hansen didn’t have to dig terribly deep to fund this project. The black walnut trees are only a few inches high and cost $1.25 apiece. (By cutting down big black walnut trees, the state likely would have made several thousand dollars with the Drazkowski plan.)

But Capitol reporters were having no part of Thissen’s effort at humor. They started trying to get Thissen and Senate Miniority Leader Tom Bakk to say what Dayton’s been telling them in private.

“What’s his strategy?” a reporter asked Bakk.

Bakk looked surprised at the question that assumed three things: 1. Dayton has an end-game strategy; 2. He’s shared it with DFL legislative leaders; and 3. Legislative leaders would share the strategy with reporters.

Bakk, kindly, didn’t laugh at the question. Rather, he responded with a talking point.

“I can tell you this,” Bakk said. “There will be no agreement without a fourth- tier income tax.”

Some reporters were still trying to get Bakk and Thissen to “tell us the governor’s strategy” as the DFLers slipped away.

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

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 04/29/2011 - 07:50 pm.

    Oh pulease!

    Both sides are backing each other up against a state government shutdown this year and are trying to set the other side up as the culprit.

    It’s a game of chicken in part to see who blinks first, and how the public will view that.

  2. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 04/30/2011 - 12:31 am.

    Well, it’s about time. The press should NEVER settle for “talking point” interactions.

    If the parrot legislators won’t give them anything, they should walk away — en masse — from those phony press conferences and try to find another way to get at what’s really going on.

    Frankly, it’s been pointless to follow recent coverage of the legislative session because these stories all say the same thing over and over.

    If the Fourth Estate cannot shine a light into the dark corners of government, then there’s no point to its existence.

  3. Submitted by dan buechler on 04/30/2011 - 07:05 am.

    I don’t know how you guys and gals reporters do it or take it sometime. Just as a consumer of news my wife and I go batty sometimes. Mabe you ought to state the catergorical imperative to them. Or sleep with them, or bring a big tall ex wrestler to intimidate dem dos talkin points. Well you can always talk to an academic they are somewhat better than the spin doctors.

  4. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 04/30/2011 - 11:39 am.

    Given the deadlock at both the state and national level, maybe reporters are going to have to become the responsible fourth arm of government and start reporting on the issues rather than the politicians, as Obama suggested in releasing his birth certificate. At the state level, for example, a series of articles on what cuts to education mean to students and what lack of LGA funds would mean to property tax payers in certain cities.

    We get fairly good reporting on what tax increases or decreases mean to individuals in various income tax brackets, but a rare story on what sales tax increases mean to individuals or families. This continues the “no new taxes” mantra of the right. How about a story of what an income tax increase at the highest brackets would mean for education or LGA.

    The talking points get re-emphasized every time they are printed.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 04/30/2011 - 11:53 am.

    I am not a journalist so I don’t quite follow the fascination with trying to get these two sides to negotiate in public or negotiate through the press. I know that IS the story but it is not one that can be reported. One would have to be very stupid indeed to tell a reporter what one’s strategy is. I think reporters should focus on the issues which have been under-reported. That is ultimately what they can be held accountable for-not the drama of the negotiating process.

  6. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/30/2011 - 03:56 pm.

    It’s hardly a game of chicken. It’s a majority with an ideological agenda that, if enacted, will harm the poor (especially the homeless, disabled or old or ill) and middle classes. The harm will be so great in some instances that people priced out of the health care market by the right-wing voucher plan will die because they can’t afford to see a doctor.

    The governor is doing his best to see that this does not happen and the Democrats in the legislature are doing their best to convince other members to vote for legislation that helps instead of hurts.

    I’d like to see in the press and broadcast media some nitty-gritty explanations telling people who are now on the excellent MinnCare program how they will be affected: Some but not a lot of help via the voucher; a separate insurance policy for each family member; copays of from $20 to about $200 for just about everything, deductibles, and a minimum of $3,000 out-of-pocket spending for any one person before further expenses are completely paid for by the insurance company.

    I’ve heard two estimates (90,000 and 105,000) of the number of persons who will be unable to afford health insurance at all, voucher or no. Those who push the voucher plan somehow believe they are helping people. Yikes.

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