Session recap

City’s legislative leaders reflect on accomplishments, setbacks of 2007 session

Just a day after Gov. Tim Pawlenty capped a series of vetoes by nixing a tax bill that would have provided millions of dollars in property tax relief and local government aid, Minneapolis legislators who gathered for a recent roundtable discussion acknowledged that the 2007 legislative session contained its share of frustration and disappointment.

Yet the seven legislators whose districts include portions of Downtown and Southwest were adamant that the governor’s vetoes not define this year’s session. Not only did the Legislature complete its budget work on time for the first time in eight years, they pointed out, but strong new DFL majorities began making at least some headway on the “bread and butter” issues, such as transportation, education and health care, the party declared its top priorities.

Successes of the session legislators point to include a statewide indoor smoking ban, education funding increases, expanded health-care coverage for children, a package of energy reforms, and greater funding for nursing homes and mental health initiatives.

Successful bills that will impact Minneapolis include legislation authorizing the merger of Minneapolis and Hennepin County Library systems, funding for squad car security cameras for the Minneapolis Police Department, more than $1 million for the Midtown Global Market, $2.6 million for summer youth programs and a provision to extend the end date of state money to help restore the Minneapolis Employees Retirement Fund from 2012 to 2020.

At the same time, many key DFL initiatives were vetoed or stripped down by Pawlenty, and several bills were reworked and sent back to the governor a second time.

The governor vetoed a bill that would have boosted transportation funding through a gas-tax increase and other fee hikes, and the Legislature could only manage to pass a funding bill keeping the state’s transportation system at status quo. He vetoed the tax bill after publicly expressing frustration with a provision in the legislation that would require the state to include inflation in future budget forecasts.

The DFLers’ goal of ensuring all children in the state have health care was stripped down, and efforts to provide funding for all-day kindergarten were dramatically reduced. The governor also vetoed a bonding bill that would have provided funding for the Central Corridor light-rail system. And while the governor approved the library merger, he vetoed $4.5 million in funding that would have supported costs of the consolidation.

DFLers at the roundtable had plenty to say about the outcome of this year’s session, which began with high hopes and a lot of talk about collegiality between the Republican governor and the DFL majority. Below are excerpts of the roundtable discussion.

Southwest Journal: … Gov. Pawlenty vetoed the tax bill the DFL majorities in the House and Senate had passed, cutting the legs out from more than $70 million in local government aid (LGA) and $33 million in property tax relief. (Including at least $13 million in LGA that would have gone to Minneapolis.) What is your response to the veto, and where do you go from here?

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher: “Well, first of all, it’s disappointing that the governor would choose to veto property tax relief for the second time in the legislative session. The first time that we sent property tax relief was a very direct form of property tax relief. It would have cut property taxes for 90 percent of Minnesotans – almost every Minnesotan would have seen a reduction in their property taxes. … And yesterday he again chose to veto property tax relief for Minnesotans. It’s just clear that the governor has a real knack for raising people’s property taxes.

I think the other part of this is the direct property tax relief that was in the bill with the $33 million. At least $13 million was coming to Minneapolis. I think a number of homeowners would have seen direct property tax relief off of the property tax refund program, so that’s another missed opportunity. [The governor] also, in the education bill, vetoed the money for the technology piece of the Minneapolis-Hennepin County library merger, which is sort of mind boggling at this point. He signed the bill to make the merger happen but vetoed the money.

SWJ: Do you expect the merger can go forward without that supporting money?

Kelliher: “I think that will have to be a discussion between the [Hennepin] County Board and the other parties involved, the Minneapolis Public Library system and the city.”

SWJ: Do you think a special session could be in the future?

Kelliher: “It’s up to the governor to call a special session. If he calls a special session, I think a couple things would happen. First, I think a lot more of this would be done in public. I think none of us were happy with the results at the end of the session with the discussions that happened privately with the governor. I think you’ve got to go back to that Ronald Regan adage: ‘Trust, but verify.’ And I think the best way to verify is to do this publicly. Obviously, our first priorities would be the work the governor has vetoed – the tax bill, the bonding bill. But I don’t think we’d limit our agenda to that.”

Rep. Paul Thissen: “If we were to go in, we’d like to get some kind of understanding from him. I think one of the most frustrating things about the session was the way the items in discussion changed from day to day. And it’s hard to negotiate from that kind of position. I think that’s why public negotiations are a much better option. The other thing about the tax bill is that the reason he vetoed it is we wanted to put inflation back into the budget forecast, which 49 other states do. … To push away property tax relief for most Minnesotans on the basis of something like that – which I think was mostly an affront to him personally rather than a policy decision – is really telling and is maybe a good parable for the whole session and shows what drove things right through the end.”

SWJ: Was there any discussion as the session wound down of leaving out that piece about the inflation requirement for future budget forecasts in an effort to try to get a property tax relief measure passed?

Kelliher: “I think it’s been pretty clear that the governor has concerns about including the inflation provision in the budget. However, as late as three to four days before the end of the session, the governor said to Sen. [Larry] Pogemiller and myself in his office that he was going to look at the new language the Senate came up with, which helped soften the inflation language (there are a few things that automatically have some inflation counted into them – our special education costs, some human services programs – so the Senate came up with some compromise language that took those things out those and included the inflationary provision on the rest of the state budget).

It’s a very sound budget, very reasonable, so when he left the opening that he would look at the language, we were actually hoping that he might sign the bill. He did, a few hours before the end of the session, again communicate through an e-mail to staff that he would veto the bill. It’s fair to say that his position was a bit of a moving target on this.”

SWJ: It sounds like there was a lot of frustration in the last few weeks of the session.

Kelliher: “In spite of all of this, we actually produced some pretty good results for Minnesotans. We finished the session on time, which is something that we haven’t done in quite a while in a budget year. That’s a big deal, that we actually were able to produce responsible legislation that will actually do more for Minnesotans instead of less for Minnesotans overall. We did that within the timeline that was outlined for us. I think we had a lot of hurdles, and there were missed opportunities along the way, with the transportation bill being a major one.”

Rep. Frank Hornstein: “I was on the conference committee for the transportation bill. We made significant concessions to the governor and his allies, with the gas tax being one of them. It was originally 10 cents [per gallon] and it went down to 5 [cents per gallon]. We were very adverse to his bonding proposals, and we kept a lot of that in. To have that bill vetoed even after we got 90 votes after the conference committee report was a real setback. Unfortunately, we’re still where we were several years ago. He has continued to veto and veto and veto on transportation. Something that was in this tax bill that was vetoed yesterday was a $33 million public finance for Metro Transit infrastructure, and we don’t have that either. So it was really a disappointing session on transportation, despite our efforts to compromise and literally meet the governor half way.”

SWJ: Was it disappointing to go into the session with such strong DFL majorities in the House and the Senate and then have the session seemingly defined by one veto after the next?

Kelliher: “I think that it is never wrong to stand up for the things you believe in and the things that people elected you to do. So I think the fact that Minnesotans want more health coverage for kids and families is something we want to stand up for; to make sure we’re standing up against the double-digit tuition increases at our colleges and universities is absolutely something we should stand up for and work toward; with transportation, I think we have a very honest disagreement with the governor over new revenue – I don’t think it was wrong at all to stand up and fight for that.”

Thissen: “I think trying to define any effort that we make within the context of a single session – I just don’t think is fair. What we do in the Legislature is not about a single session; it’s about a trend or a direction we want to take things. One of the things we did this year is set out a bold vision of where we think Minnesota ought to go. And if this session is defined as a veto session, I think that’s defining the vision of the governor.”

Sen. Linda Berglin: “I think another difference is that we did honest budgeting. In the Health and Human Services area, the governor took federal funds that are supposed to be used for welfare reform, took funds from the health care access fund that are dedicated to help people who are uninsured, and he spent it on everything else. And we didn’t do that, and I think it’s an important thing for us to do.”

Kelliher: “I think the reality here is that the budget cuts of 2003 are still being felt out there, and there’s still a lot of work to do in righting the fiscal ship of the state. I think we did a lot of work toward that this time in producing a budget that’s balanced into the future that’s very sound. I think it will help us build on what’s left undone to be able to make it more meaningful in the future.”

SWJ: So how would you grade this session?

Kelliher: “I said the day after the session that it’s a B+/A- session. I would still say that. I think that in the long term, we took some major steps forward in things like energy policy, public health, the set up to be able to have a lot of discussion in the interim about comprehensive health care and what health care reform in Minnesota looks like.”

Sen. Dan Larson: “I think the Speaker’s absolutely right about the tone and the working relationship that occurred at the Capitol this year. I think people are sick of the partisanship and the division that we’ve seen the last few years both at the national level and here in Minnesota. And it seemed, at least in my perspective, the adults were in the room and made the decisions and brought this to a close. Even if there wasn’t ultimately a bold outcome, we had an outcome we could live with.”

Hornstein: “I guess the biggest difference for me was we didn’t spend so much time on these hugely divisive issues, pitting people against each other on gay marriage, dividing people on the lines of immigrants, and we were actually addressing problems and solving them.”

Sen. Scott Dibble: “I would go with a B-. I’d say that Frank and I worked very, very hard on getting this transportation bill passed. We’re extremely pleased with that development. We know now where Minnesota is and that we can achieve this monumental goal someday. The public is mobilized, many sectors of our Minnesota political body are mobilized, and we passed that overwhelmingly. But it has to be contrasted with the extremely disappointing veto and the lack of the ability to achieve an override.”

Thissen: “I think one of the things that was driving things in the House was both sides were getting used to reversal of power after eight years. And I don’t think that the now-Republican minority had quite accepted that they weren’t in charge any more. Conversely, on our side, we were learning to run an institution, so there was a lot of learning on our side as well.”

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at [email protected] or 436-4373.