09 January 2010

A lot of feel-good, not a lot of specifics at the Capitol

As part of my training at KFAI, I shadowed political reporter Marty Owings yesterday at the Capitol as he covered the closed door meeting and press conferences of legislative leaders (including the DFL's Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, as well as the GOP's Senate Minority Leader David Senjem and House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers) and Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Apparently the state's political leaders are sticking to a New Year's resolution to play nice, particularly when compared to the more pointed rhetoric used at the end of the last session. All the attendees characterized the meeting as positive, but that feel-good rapport may prove tentative when the legislative session starts on Feb. 4 and the rubber meets the road.

DFL majority leadership still says it wants to work with their Republican minority counterparts and the governor on how filling the projected $1.2 billion shortfall for the current budget. There is also the ongoing legal action regarding the funds unallotted by Pawlenty last year. Not to mention a bonding bill for construction projects, systematic reforms to confront future budget shortfalls, and proposals to spur the economy and curb high unemployment. Oh, and there's re-election and a wide open race for governor this year as well.

Some observations/ruminations:

  • How will the remaining acrimony and legal debate from Pawlenty's 2009 unallotments affect the tone and direction of this year's budget battles? The courts are expediting the appeals process. An earlier decision on who has what power with the budget will undoubtedly give more certainty and direction to the negotiations.
  • Pawlenty would also probably like the Legislature to ratify and share ownership of his past unilateral budget actions, particularly the shift of $1.8 billion payments to K-12 schools. Doug Grow has an in-depth piece on the subject at MinnPost, but essentially, if the Legislature ratifies the shift, it guarantees payment to the schools at some point. With no legislative action, the payments may never happen, which would make Pawlenty's move less of a shift and more of a cut. Unsurprisingly, school administrators are hoping the Legislature ratifies the shift. This puts the DFL legislators in an interesting spot. They are perennial advocates of public education funding, but are they willing to give the governor political cover on one of their core issues?
  • The sequence of the budget negotiations will go something like this: 1) The governor's office proposes cuts to balance budget. 2) DFL leadership says some of those cuts are unacceptable and will ruin the state. In turn, they propose tax increases. 3) Pawlenty and Republicans reply: taxes will kill economic growth. No new taxes! 4) If anyone knows what happens next, please e-mail me.
  • Expect to see a repeat of the 2008 bonding bill battle, when the Legislature approved a bill and Pawlenty line-item vetoed a number of projects, memorably singling out a music library in Chatfield as a prime example of wasteful government spending. This is the North Star State version of the federal debate over earmarked funding. This year, DFLers will support $1 billion for projects that they say will create jobs and boost the economy, while Pawlenty will push for $750 million and champion fiscal restraint in tough economic times. Expect to hear the phrases "get this state back to work" and "live within our means" a lot.
  • The only new key player is Rep. Kurt Zellers, who took over as Republican House Minority Leader after Rep. Marty Seifert stepped down and launched his gubernatorial campaign. It's doubtful this change will have much impact on the direction of the budget negotiations, but we'll have to see.
  • The question everyone will be asking at the end of the session: who won? With a number of legislators running for governor (most notably Speaker Kelliher) and Pawlenty eyeing the White House in 2012, not to mention the entire Legislature up for re-election this fall, the political stakes are high. A lot of gubernatorial candidates will want to come out of this session looking like the Hero (that's right, capital 'H'). Conversely, though, the increased stakes might inspire more timidity than bold action. There will be particular pressure on Kelliher -- who currently holds conventional wisdom's title of frontrunner for the DFL endorsement -- to post a clear victory for her party, which feels it has been out-maneuvered too often by the governor's office. If she doesn't deliver, expect her opponents for the endorsement to offer some criticism of the loud and pointed variety.
  • And I'm sure Pawlenty wouldn't mind having a "I took charge and saved Minnesota's economy by decreasing the size of government and not raising taxes" talking point in a couple years.
  • Oh yeah, I hate to get all Chicken Little, but beyond the political stakes, if things really head south, Minnesota's government could just disintegrate into economic turmoil a la California. You know, no big deal or anything.
So, ultimately, no big news out of St. Paul, but a lot to think about before the real show starts next month.

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