Claire Robling, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, appears ready to step up her role.
Throughout the session, the Jordan Republican periodically floated the idea of new budget revenue.
But now, with roughly 23,000 state workers out of a job and 1,000 private employees furloughed at her district’s Canterbury Park, Robling said at a Wednesday news conference there that she will be part of the discussions to raise new revenues.
Robling said she would take an active role in persuading her leadership to secure such a deal to end Minnesota’s two-week-long government shutdown.
As a leader in the Senate, Robling could initiate conversations about a possible compromise to reach a deal with Gov. Mark Dayton on some form of revenue hikes. In recent days, several other GOP lawmakers, including freshman Sen. Dave Brown of Becker, have said they’re open to increased revenues if it means ending the shutdown.
Does Robling support more spending?
No, but she does see it as a means to an end.
‘We need to compromise’
“I would like to think that we could maintain spending at the level of available revenue,” Robling said in an interview Wednesday night. “But obviously [Dayton] does not, so we need to compromise.”
Her conciliatory stance butts against the view that many new GOP lawmakers brought with them when they swept both legislative chambers in November.
Robling said she thought new revenue would have to be included in a budget deal as far back as January, when Minnesota’s budget deficit was estimated at $6.2 billion. When the state’s February forecast predicted the smaller $5 billion shortfall, she breathed a temporary sigh of relief.
Now, however, with no deal in sight, Robling publicly renewed her call for compromise. “I’m just doing something publicly that I have done previously,” she said.
The growing strain on many in the state’s economy – public employees, alcohol distributors, the racing industry and other private businesses — seems to weigh heavily on her.
“I hope it ends by this week,” she said, adding later in the day: “I just think this is not good for our fragile Minnesota economy.”
On Wednesday at Canterbury Park, Robling played the part of a renegade member angry that a budget deal still hadn’t been brokered. If it were up to her, she said after the event, Dayton and the GOP leaders would be locked in the governor’s reception room until they came out with a deal.
When asked about her role as a Senate leader in the negotiations, Robling said that talks really have been occurring among Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch. Instead, she said she’s “been working behind the scenes” since before regular session ended.
On her potential influence, she added: “I really don’t know. It’s up to the people I’m speaking to. If they’re going to hear my voice or not, I don’t know.”
Mum on ‘new revenue’ details
The senator was mum on what any new revenues might look like.
That leaves a variety of options – including something like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “health impact fee” on cigarettes (which Robling voted for) that ended the 2005 state government shutdown.
Dayton proposed a similar $1-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes that the Republican leaders promptly rejected last week. Robling’s position on such an increase this time remains unclear.
“I really am not ready to talk about the options but racino,” said Robling, who touted that proposal Wednesday. She also shied away from betraying a spending target she could support but did say Minnesota’s budget “could still stay in the $34 billion range.”
Robling said she thinks a deal will come from both sides of the aisle — unlike Speaker Zellers, who said earlier this week that he doesn’t anticipate the DFL legislative minority playing any part in solving the $5 billion budget deficit.
That oesn’t mean, however, that Robling would defect to fill one of the “six chairs” – or the Senate equivalent – that House Democrats floated earlier this week to achieve a deal.
“I’m not there,” Robling said. “I want our leadership to reach a deal. I think that’s the best way to do it.”