2009 Minneota Legislature: Un-session brings unallotment
ST. PAUL -- The 2009 Minnesota Legislature will be remembered as the un-session.
Unruly: As midnight arrived Monday, Republican senators were shouting to be recognized and called the end of the session a shame and a disgrace.
Uncommunicative: In the last few days of the five-month session, when leaders and the governor were supposed to work out a budget deal, they seldom even talked about meeting.
Unchanged: Talk at the beginning of the year was that a massive budget deficit gave lawmakers a chance to reform how they do things; little reform occurred.
Unsportsmanlike: For the first time in years, there was no serious talk about funding a new sports stadium.
Unacceptable: The governor refused to accept state tax increases; Democrats who control the Legislature refused to do without more taxes.
And the biggest un, unallot: Now, Gov. Tim Pawlenty begins looking at what he can cut from budget bills lawmakers passed, a process known as unallotment.
After nearly five months in St. Paul, lawmakers ended their session at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, a minute after the constitutional deadline, amid shouting on the House and Senate floors. The Senate, in particular, was raucous as seven Republican senators rose to talk about a $1 billion tax increase plan they just were given as time ran out. Democratic leaders refused to let them debate the measure.
"Never have I seen anything like this," said the usually quiet Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. "This is not the way Minnesota governs."
Minnesotans are going to see something else they never have seen - a governor cutting $2.7 billion out of the state budget.
Democrats and people dependent upon state money are worried. They blame Pawlenty for the state's economic problems, because he repeatedly beat back their attempts to raise taxes to help fund schools, local governments and health-care programs.
Cities are among those most concerned because Pawlenty again Tuesday made it clear he will cut state aid to them.
"While the governor and the legislative leaders are content to blame each other, Minnesota communities are about to be delivered a body blow in the form of huge property taxes and cuts to public safety, libraries and other critical services," Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden said. "Minnesota is now headed toward the unallotment cliff."
Pawlenty said that he hopes to let Minnesotans know within weeks what he will cut, but only after his staff talks to key legislators about their wishes. He plans to at least release an outline of the cuts by the time the next budget begins on July 1.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said conflict that arose during the legislative session was framed around two basic philosophical beliefs: Smaller government is better vs. tax increases are justified to fund basic services.
State government's budget troubles are not over, Stumpf predicted, claiming that Pawlenty's budget strategy will create more financial problems in the coming years.
"In the end, the battle's not done," he said.
Lawmakers left the Capitol frustrated with the legislative process.
"All of us - Democrats and Republicans - have to find a better way to get our job done," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said. "As far as I'm concerned, these last four and a half months we spent a lot of time yelling at each other back and forth, but no one listened. It's just disappointing."
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said lawmakers had a chance this year to make major budget reforms, but Democrats who control the Legislature "squandered four or five months of time."
"It's a messy session but it was a messy budget," Seifert said as lawmakers left the Capitol early Tuesday.
Senate Tax Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that Democratic leaders ordered him to draw up the tax increase five hours before the constitutional adjournment deadline. It would provide proof that Democrats tried to balance the budget.
"There had not been an actual balanced budget put on the governor's desk," Bakk said.
The bill would have raised taxes $1 billion and delayed $1.7 billion in school payments, but Pawlenty expects to veto it as soon as it arrives in his office.
Republicans complained about Democratic arrogance for ramming the tax bill through the House in half an hour and the Senate in about half that time. Generally, such a major bill would receive hours-long debate.
"We acknowledge that this is one of the most difficult sessions," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said moments after the rough ending.
"In the end, the chasm was just a little too wide," she said of differences between Democrats and Pawlenty.
Among last-minute items the Legislature passed:
- A bill spending $397 million in the next two years on outdoors and arts projects with money from a sales tax increase voters approved last Nov. 4. Water clean-up work would get the most money, $151 million. Also funded are arts, $93 million; outdoor heritage fund, $88 million; and parks and trials, $65 million.
- A measure allowing terminally ill patients to use marijuana to ease pain. Pawlenty said he will veto the bill.
- A bill requiring schools to establish an anti-bullying policy.
- A provision that would allow law enforcement officers to pull motorists over when someone in the vehicle is not wearing a seat belt. Pawlenty plans to sign the bill.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.