The Republican majorities in the state House and Senate are caught between a rock and a hard place and are figuring out a plan to get free without sacrificing their budget ideals.
The rock is Gov. Mark Dayton’s message that voters want balance, not extremes, in closing the budget gap and his effective use of the bully pulpit, now backed by $1 million media campaign from the Alliance for Better Minnesota.
The hard place is more of a hard line. Republican legislators claim, and say they have internal polls to prove it, that voters believe that the biggest budget in state history is big enough. “I would say we are really strong inside our caucus and the feedback we are getting is not just from Republicans but the middle,” says Rep. Keith Downey, the Republican from Edina. “They sent us here for fiscal restraint.”
This week and next, House and Senate Republican leaders are tackling two major questions: how to communicate their position as effectively as Dayton has communicated his and, once the communication is on equal footing, which items will be in play for a budget deal.
Legislators privately agree that communication has been inconsistent: a problem of too many messengers (Sens. Amy Koch and Geoff Michel, Rep. Kurt Zellers, freshman legislators, the Republican Party) and too many themes (“live within our means,” “Governor Dayton is erratic,” “Republicans have already compromised.”) GOP sources say the public can expect more discipline in the coming weeks.
Legislators are also wondering if there will be outside support to counter the Alliance for Better Minnesota campaign. Groups like Minnesota Forward, Minnesota’s Future and the Minnesota Majority, all backed by business money and active in the 2010 election, have yet to make a big splash in the budget debate.
Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, says business groups have already back a “targeted” campaign of radio and internet ads, but with the Alliance for Better Minnesota effort, “it reinforces the need for messaging.”
But Weaver was non-committal about television advertising. “The Alliance will always have more money than we do,” he said. “With union money and personal wealth, they will outspend us two to one.”
Weaver maintains that the outcome of the budget debate will be determined by what he says is public support for the Republican position, not how much money is spent.
Despite the Republican Party’s exhortations that “a compromise to the left is a compromise of good and evil” and that “the state party will continue to oppose any scheme to generate revenue as a means to avoid spending reductions” (which some legislators regard as unhelpful), the GOP leadership has a list of negotiating items for a budget deal. They include expansion of gambling and a bonding bill to improve the balance sheet for the next biennium and policy points like education reforms and a Vikings stadium.
These options are the lesser of the negotiating evils for Republican legislators, who genuinely believe that they have crafted a reasonable budget solution and who are equally sincere in their opposition to a solution that increases spending through gambling or borrowing through a bonding bill. But they cannot imagine a scenario that involves an income tax increase.
Weaver sympathizes with their dilemma. “Almost every other state is reducing government, being smarter and more efficient about the way it operates,” he said. “It’s insane for Minnesota to go in the other direction.”
Republicans give Dayton points on efficiency. Downey, a lead legislator on government redesign, cites Dayton’s support of changes in teachers’ licensure, reforms to the environmental permitting process and a recent request from the governor’s office for bids to audit and suggest improvements for a variety of government functions.
Again, though, there’s Republican frustration that even though many of the reforms stemmed from Republican legislation, Dayton, with the power of the governor’s office, has received a large share of the credit. Headed toward another special legislative session, they are learning that the use of that power has given Dayton the negotiating edge that they are scrambling to blunt.