Lawmakers: Pawlenty speech positive, but short on specifics

ST. PAUL -- Republicans and Democrats agreed that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's State of the State speech Thursday touched on important issues such as education, health care and the environment.

ST. PAUL -- Republicans and Democrats agreed that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's State of the State speech Thursday touched on important issues such as education, health care and the environment.

But beyond that, they couldn't find much to agree on from the GOP governor's fourth annual address that is considered an early stump speech for his re-election bid later this year.

"I think that Gov. Pawlenty gave an absolutely wonderful perspective, a message of positiveness and hope," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, a staunch Pawlenty ally.

"I can't say I can walk away from that speech and tell you what the governor's priorities are for the next two months," Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said.

Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said Pawlenty highlighted four "cornerstone" principles that should govern legislative action: education, health care, the environment and job creation.


"We will focus on those initiatives," Sviggum said.

Pawlenty opponents were critical of the governor's promotion of new programs without an explanation of how they would be paid for. The governor also urged lawmakers to do their part to see further economic growth in Minnesota by not raising taxes.

But that's just what Pawlenty has done the past few years, Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson said.

Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said fees for various state services have increased, student tuition rates have risen and property taxes have escalated.

"It's a shift, it's a shift in taxation and it's a shift in responsibility," Johnson said.

Lawmakers from rural Minnesota said Pawlenty's speech neglected attention to their areas. Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said he appreciated the governor's optimism, but wanted more.

"A strong rural Minnesota means a strong Minnesota," Marquart said. "I don't hear that enough" from Pawlenty and legislative leaders.

The governor highlighted agribusiness successes in Benson, Minn., touted previous action on expansion of ethanol use and pushed for more innovation, including in developing renewable energy alternatives.


"It was a tremendous example. It's great that that story has resonated to the top," Rep. Torrey Westrom said of the Benson reference. The Elbow Lake Republican's district reaches near Benson. He described the governor's message was positive.

The speech covered many issues facing legislators, from proposed constitutional amendments to benefits for military veterans, but he didn't talk in detail about what's considered their main job this session: approving a public works funding bill.

"I was kind of surprised that he didn't mention more about it," Sen. Keith Langseth said of the bonding bill that borrows money for state construction projects.

Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, is chairman of the Senate committee in charge of the bonding bill. He said Pawlenty's speech sounded good but didn't reflect reality.

"You look at what he says and what's happened the last three years - there's a big disconnect," Langseth said, citing inadequate transportation funding that has resulted in "crumbling roads."

"I like him as a person, but I'm not very supportive of him as governor," Langseth added.

Johnson, the Senate leader, speculated as to why Pawlenty didn't encourage speedy passage of a bonding bill, which officials say creates jobs across the state.

"I think the reason why is he was a little shy on the higher education piece," said Johnson, whose caucus wants more money for university and college projects than the governor proposed.


The governor's call to "put a cap on property taxes" to reduce taxpayer burden left some lawmakers puzzled.

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said she wants more information on the tax cap proposal. Local governments have had increase property taxes in order to maintain critical services in light of decreases in state support, she said.

"Presumably that would mean we're going to stop passing the buck on funding things," Sailer said of the governor's proposal.

Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, also questioned the direction of Pawlenty's property tax cap proposal, saying it shouldn't be at the expense of services that help ensure Minnesotans' high quality of life.

"I very much want to keep property taxes down, but the state can't raise school levies and then cry foul that property taxes are going up," Moe said. "The federal government is doing the same with its budget-balancing act which will cost Beltrami County property taxpayers over $3 million. The federal and state governments need to take responsibility for these decisions."

Republicans, too, were skeptical of the property tax cap.

Rep. Dean Simpson, vice chairman of the House Taxes Committee, said that didn't sound like a proposal that would make it through this legislative session.

"I don't know how much of an appetite there is for that," Simpson, R-New York Mills, said.


However, Simpson said the overall tone of the governor's speech was positive and dealt with the issues important to people in his district and across the state.

Sailer said she appreciated the governor's call for more work on renewable energy, but wants to see him take action to urge fellow Republicans to support the measures.

Pawlenty wrapped up his 40-minute speech by calling for unity in the Capitol and for elected officials to "rise above the circumstances of politics and personality and look to the future."

"You're not going to give up the things that are best for my district just to say that we're unified," Sailer said.

Moe agreed that Pawlenty's speech held similar goals to his, but it remains to be seen what are in the details.

"Issues like conservation, better schools and expanded access to health care have been my top priorities since I came to the Legislature; those are the issues people in northern Minnesota have been telling me is most important to them," Moe said.

"It's also encouraging the governor changed his mind and decided to support a renewable energy standard, something that a broad based coalition has supported for years," Moe said.

Pioneer Political Editor Brad Swenson contributed to this story.

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