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Town Hall meeting: Persell spars with constituents

Rep. John Persell and Sen. Mary Olson, both Bemidji Democrats, try to explain the enormity of the state budget deficit the state faces over the next fhree years to about a dozen people who attended Olson's town hall meeting Friday evening at Bemidji City Hall. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Rep. John Persell said Friday he'd looked into ways to impeach Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a comment that drew an angry rebut from a constituent.

Persell, DFL-Bemidji, talking to a town hall audience at Bemidji City Hall, said the country lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the current Great Recession isn't as devastating even though there is a huge demand on human services.

"The difference right now is we have an administration in the state of Minnesota that doesn't want to do anything except the way that administration feels is the correct way to do things," he said. "That's just leading us into a little bit of a nightmare. We should have a balanced approach to all this."

The town hall meeting for about a dozen people was hosted by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who tried to explain the complexities of a legislative session where, despite Democrats in control of both chambers, the GOP governor has singlehandedly run state government.

In a new budget forecast, the state faces a $1.2 billion budget deficit yet this biennium and at least a $5.8 billion one in the next biennium. Pawlenty, a Republican, started off this biennium by vetoing revenue-raising bills to pay for spending, and then unilaterally unallotted $2.7 billion in spending to balance the budget.

That decision, however, is being challenged in court.

"I started asking around, what does it take to impeach our governor?" Persell said. "When I started asking that at the beginning ... of this session, I had become really frustrated."

When asking for impeachment information, Persell said he justified by saying that Pawlenty's "not around, if he was in the military like I was or like Mary was, that'd be dereliction of duty. You'd be in the brig, you'd be on KP, you'd be doing something."

Democrats have been critical of Pawlenty not being engaged in the legislative process, and instead traveling the country, supposedly for his 2012 presidential bid which he so far denies.

"You wouldn't be running around the country, saying you're trying to be a governor," Persell said. "You can't run a government without the three branches of government."

"He's running for president," said Marilyn Heltzer.

"Put him there, and we'll impeach him there," Persell said.

"That's basically what the man is doing, running for president," Heltzer said.

"And what's wrong with that?" asked Jutta Goetz, sitting behind her.

"Nothing, but he should be running the state," Heltzer returned.

"I think we're getting into a thing here where again we're attacking one or the other, and that's not how you're going to get things done," Goetz said.

Persell, a little sharper, said that he "sat there and listened to what the governor did -- I try not to judge people, I go there with an open mind -- I talk to more Republicans across the aisle than anyone else.

"But I looked at how things are being done and how this governor has turned his nose at a number of initiatives that we believe are grass-roots, common sense," he added. "When you get rebuffed, rebuffed, rebuffed, then you say what do we do different. That's when I asked about impeachment. I'm serious; I'm serious."

"That's a threat, that's all we hear," said Goetz, who is also a Beltrami County Republican delegate.

"That's not a threat, ma'am, that's a constitutional provision," Persell said.

"But that sounds like a threat, because he (Pawlenty) hasn't done anything illegal just because he's working in a different way than you do," Goetz said. "You should not be going around throwing out these threats and doing this kind of stuff . You're not going to get things done and you're not going to get re-elected."

"I think we just got something done," Persell said, referring to the afternoon's announcement that legislative leaders and Pawlenty had agreed on a way to fund General Assistance Medical Care. "I think the governor came to the table, because he realized that he's running this state in the ground."

Olson said the major work so far this session -- of a public works bonding bill and the GAMC bill -- was vetoed or his under threat of veto by Pawlenty and both passed the House and Senate with bipartisan majorities.

"Then people lined up along partisan lines so we could not override that," she said, "In talking about working together and negotiating, we've got to have first of all everyone at the table to make it happen, and we've got to give some consideration to each other in terms of the branches of government.

"If it's just going to be my way or a veto, and disregard what the Legislature thinks, that's what happened with all the unallotments.," Olson said. "That makes it very difficult to work together."

The budget hole is deep, Olson said, one that cutting spending, raising taxes or delaying payments will not alone solve. Pawlenty, however, remains resolved not to raise state taxes.

Bemidji City Councilor Ron Johnson said Pawlenty's proposed cuts to Local Government Aid would be "devastating" to city services. A Lakeland Public Television employee, Johnson also said Pawlenty cuts to public broadcasting "would be the end" of Lakeland TV News.

Heltzer, a Bemidji Public Library Board member, said state aid cuts to cities and counties ultimately affect library services, and a time when the recession is driving up numbers of visitors to the library, especially to use computers to do job searches and resumes.

Bemidji School Board member Carol Johnson said the district had to borrow $9 million to cover the state aid shift, which Olson says there are no provisions to pay back districts.

"We are entering into, as a state, one of the largest deficits that we have ever faced in the next biennium, with inflation will be $7 billion to $8 billion," said Andrew Spaeth, co-president of the Bemidji State Student Senate. "It means in the next two to four years, tuition will go up 20 to 30 percent unless we significantly cut programs -- academic programs or services."

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system could see reductions of up to $300 million, and to BSU $3 million.

"The investment that we make in higher education can have a lasting effect on our state," Spaeth said, adding that for every $1 invested, $11 is returned in a higher quality workforce.

Still, Goetz said the state spends too much, especially in welfare with too many able-bodied people not working but collecting public subsidies.

First, there are rules against that, Olson said, and second, so-called "welfare" programs have been reformed into get-ready-for-work programs and only account for less than 1 percent of the state budget.

"This is a tough time for you guys down there," said Ken Cobb, Beltrami County Republican chairman. "It's a lot easier when there is a surplus. ... unspending what you spend is much more difficult. My main concern is in looking at other states, such as California, there is a caution that at some point you can tax your jobs right out of your state."

Persell disagreed, saying the quality of life means more than tax climate.

In a conversation with a beer wholesaler over taxes driving businesses out of the state, Persell said he "reached in my pocket and pulled out $10 and told him here's 10 bucks for the bus ticket, you find me somebody and let them go to South Dakota. They'll go to the Black Hills, Wall Drug, they'll go to the Badlands, and they'll be back here because that's all the heck there is South Dakota."

"That's not true," said Cobb. "South Dakota and North Dakota are advertising in our state with jobs because we don't have a good economic climate."

Olson, however, said the Dakotas are losing population while Minnesota is gaining.

"I'm not saying taxes don't matter, there has to be a balance there," she said. "If Minnesotans want to direct their vote so Minnesota can be like South Dakota or Mississippi, then that's what will happen."