In the last two weeks, Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have worked feverishly – and probably accomplished nothing.
Yes, the Republicans have pushed through their agenda at impressive speed. But, with the exception of the ag bill, nothing they have done has a chance of getting signed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Their all-cuts budget that is nearing completion has left DFLers gasping.
This week, between the House and Senate, the Republican majority has:
• Cut $400 million from higher education and tossed into the bill language that would eliminate human cloning in Minnesota, which some fear would also serve to restrict stem cell research.
• Cut nearly two-thirds of the budget of the Human Rights department.
• Zeroed out over the long run Local Government Aid to the cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.
• Loaded the K-12 education bill with political landmines, including re-distribution of integration funds, pay freezes and elimination of collective bargaining rights for teachers.
• Cut the DNR budget to such a degree that department officials say that some state parks will have to be closed. They also want to shut down the state’s only bare-root tree-planting operation.
• Cut proposed Human Services spending by $1.6 billion, in part by moving thousands of the poor to limited private-insurance programs, which would be covered by vouchers.
• Cut the state workforce by 15 percent and hit public employees with higher rates for both pensions and health insurance.
• Cut money spent on prisons and lengthened prison sentences.
And much, much more.
Vetoes likely await
All of this seems destined to be vetoed.
So was the last two weeks a waste of time?
“Well, I’m two weeks closer to being a grandpa,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, an Iron Range DFLer.
A little girl is expected, he added proudly.
But what of legislative matters? Do Republican leaders think all of their hard work was wasted?
Of course not.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers was boasting of the “education reform” that fills the GOP’s K-12 bill. He also spoke highly of the House Republicans coming up with a tax cut for low-income earners in Minnesota. That proposal, which is not in the Senate tax bill, puts Republicans in line with the governor, Zellers said. It makes Minnesota’s tax system less regressive.
The governor, it should be noted, already has scoffed at the GOP tax cut, pointing out that it benefits high-income people far more than those at the bottom.
Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch says the speed the GOP has shown in moving through the budget process shows that Republicans have come to St. Paul and “changed the culture.”
Unlike the past, she said, Republicans have not put off all the heavy lifting for the final days of the session.
Still, in the current forms of the bills, the Republican leaders must know there’s virtually nothing that Dayton can accept.
A possible opening for compromise?
But at a news briefing Friday, Zellers and Koch seemed to leave a slight opening for the governor.
They invited Dayton’s commissioners to participate in the conference committees which will be meeting in the next two weeks to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions of bills.
They didn’t say so directly, but it sounded as if the two were saying that some of the controversial policy language that fills many of their bills could be dropped in the conference process.
Politically, that does leave an out for the GOP. The party’s most conservative members, who insist on such things as anti-cloning language in the higher ed bill, can say to constituents, “I voted for it … but it was lost in conference.”
“I don’t want to throw up any barriers,” said Koch. “We’ll work with the governor. We want to remain flexible.”
Zellers added that no one — not the governor, not the GOP — will walk away from the Capitol at the end of session totally pleased.
“But it’s not about us,” he said, “it’ about a good outcome.”
He used pizzas to bring home his point about the difficulty of all being satisfied. Those on the political right end of his caucus, he said, want a 12-inch pizza. The governor, he said, wants a 24-inch pizza, with all the extras. The budget bills being passed represent a basic 18-inch pizza with “pepperoni and cheese.”
But no matter the size of the pizza, Zellers said the bottom line for Republicans is: NO NEW TAXES.
Even if it weren’t for that line in the sand, even if conference committees could dump some of the more controversial policy issues from the fiscal bills, there remain bills — human services and higher education for starters — where the gap is huge.
And there remains one other problem, according to DFL leaders. To date, they say, the Republican bills remain packed with fake “Monopoly money.”
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen and Bakk both said the Republicans must stop assuming they can received hundreds of millions in waivers from the feds to balance their human services bill. They must stop conducting “raids” on various dedicated pots of money that have been raised in specific regions of the state for specific purposes.
“What are the real numbers?” asked Bakk. “Let’s agree on what the numbers are before we even begin to think about moving forward.”
No avoiding Vikings stadium issue
Of course, no end-of-week media session could be complete without discussion on a Vikings stadium.
Although two of their members — Sen. Julie Rosen and Rep. Morrie Lanning — are on the verge of introducing a stadium bill, Zellers and Koch were ducking for cover Friday morning.
Koch seemed almost ready to say she had no stomach for a stadium bill but then backed off. Here’s how that went:
“My personal view of a stadium,’’ she began. But she backed off and headed a different direction: “… It’s all about the budget.”
Zellers at first said the governor needs to take the lead. When it was pointed out that the governor has been out front on the stadium, he, too, went back to the budget.
“We’re focused on the budget,” he said, though he did note that stadium discussions are pointless until a site has been selected and a “local partner” has been found.
Bakk, who has been a stadium proponent, said that the Republican leadership actually is glad the stadium talk is heating up just now. In fact, he believes they planned for it.
“It’s a distraction to get you [reporters] off what they’re doing to the budget,” Bakk said.
He did say there’s one way he’d get onboard in support of a stadium.
“If Sen. Koch is willing to be the author [of a stadium bill], I’d join her as a co-author, Bakk said.
But he warned again that it’s too late in the session to be starting a stadium discussion. He said a bipartisan group of legislators had met in late January and talked about the need to bring a stadium bill to the floor at that point.
“But nothing happened,” he said. “There’s no commitment from the [Republican] leaders on a Vikings stadium.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.