Legislative session opens today; Lawmakers will deal with necessities, not luxuries
ST. PAUL -- Legislators return to the State Capitol today for a session that promises to be little fun.
Like the kid who gets clothes for Christmas, lawmakers will deal with the necessities, not the luxuries. And, frankly, there is but one overriding necessity on their minds: balance the state budget.
People around the Capitol understand that. Usually in the days leading up to a legislative session, one group after another parades out its leaders to tell lawmakers how important one program or another is and, by the way, that program needs more money.
That is happening very little now because the state faces a deficit of at least $1.2 billion in the current budget, which lasts another year and a half, and the gap could grow as Minnesota slowly recovers from a recession. The next budget likely will be in even worse shape.
Groups such as the AFL-CIO have called for increased spending on job programs and many people support returning money to a health-care program for the poor, but by far the majority of those under the marble dome know that 2010 will be a year of cutting the budget.
"They're all difficult," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said of making cuts. "Any reductions in spending at this point are going to be controversial and many of them are going to be difficult. But it's no different than what families and taxpayers are doing across the state, tightening their belts, living on less -- in some cases living on a lot less."
Most Republicans agree with Pawlenty that taxes should not be raised, and the budget should be balanced mostly by cutting programs. Democrats who control the House and Senate disagree.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said budget woes will not stop Democrats from looking for ways to create jobs, such as providing tax credits and paying for public works projects.
"Even in tough economic times, you have to be strategic about growing jobs," Sertich said.
The session beginning today likely will last until May 17, the last day the State Constitution allows lawmakers to meet.
The state is operating under a $30 billion, two-year budget after spending $34 billion the previous two years. Pawlenty made many of the cuts on his own last summer following a 2009 legislative session that ended in a stereotypical dispute between Pawlenty and DFL leaders.
Legislators of both parties are awaiting Pawlenty's ideas for trimming the budget.
Pawlenty delivers his State of the State address a week from today, and plans to release his budget tweaks at about the same time.
On Wednesday, Pawlenty told reporters that spending on the military, public safety and veterans' affairs should be safe from cuts and that he hopes to spare public school classrooms as well.
"Almost everything else is on the table," he said.
Some lawmakers call for long-term reforms, others limit their suggestions to immediate problems.
"Every year, we meet our constitutional responsibility to balance the state budget, and yet things in our state are not improving," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. "It's time to go back to the drawing board, reconsider how we spend and how we govern, and come up with initiatives that will put Minnesota back on the right track."
Marquart and other Democrats have proposed some tax changes, but it will be weeks before DFL leaders put forward their expected tax increase proposal. Pawlenty vows to veto any increase, making negotiations for a budget deal difficult because of the gulf between the sides.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, sounds pessimistic when talking about the coming four months.
"The reality of all the politics stuff going on, it just seems hard to believe that we will be able to come together," McNamara said.
Pawlenty said the governor's race with eight legislators among nearly 30 candidates could hurt compromise.
"You can imagine, hypothetically, if you are a candidate running for governor and your endorsing convention is in late April and you have to toe the party line perfectly otherwise you won't get endorsed, that puts extraordinary pressure on the individuals who are having to go through that," he said.
Republicans promise to stand by the governor on economic issues, such as balancing the state budget only with cuts. Sertich said more money is needed.
"Revenue has an impact on the economy, but so do cuts to nursing homes, education and the like," he said.
With such difficult issues, Sertich said, "it is easier to support the governor in theory than in practice."
The bottom line, however, is that DFL leaders like Sertich don't know if they can find a way to pass higher taxes to keep some programs intact.
McNamara said the public is tired of politicians going to one extreme or the other, something that led to a U.S. Senate race upset in Massachusetts
"A lot of people in the middle are speaking up and saying we need to get this done," McNamara said. "This pendulum from the far right and the far left is not working. That is what we heard from Massachusetts. A lot of people are afraid that this pendulum is swinging too far."
Don Davis and Andrew Tellijohn work for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.