Lawmakers, Pawlenty score goal
ST. PAUL - The 2008 Minnesota Legislature played out much like a hockey game.
In the first period, Democrats who control the Legislature used a power play to smash through a $6.6 billion transportation funding bill, a construction projects funding measure and a proposed constitutional amendment to raise sales taxes to fund outdoors and arts projects.
Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty began the second period by sending some state construction projects to the penalty box, over Democrats' loud objections. Otherwise, the period featured few body checks as lawmakers passed hundreds of bills (senators handled more than 100 in one day alone).
Like in a Minnesota Wild game, the third period featured a tight score and the fear of an overtime period.
Democrats and Republicans went down to the wire, but finally balanced the state budget, lowered property taxes slightly, approved a health-care reform plan, increased education spending a bit, made sure nursing homes would get a little more money and took other mostly incremental actions.
And as the third period ended, so did an effort to make hockey the state sport when hockey fanatic Pawlenty vetoed a bill containing that provision.
The overtime - and potential of sudden death - was avoided during marathon talks over more than a week that ended in an almost surreal announcement Sunday afternoon, in which political adversaries Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller smiled and laughed, and gently verbally jabbed each other from time to time
Participants in the legislative game gave it differing scores.
"It was the most successful legislative session in the last decade," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said early Monday morning.
That was the message Democrats and Pawlenty delivered Monday as they flew around Minnesota - separately - touting the session's accomplishments.
But there are indications the 2009 session will not remain as peaceful when lawmakers return to St. Paul on Jan. 6.
On Monday, Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, talked about the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's desire to make more "investments."
"I think that is code for Democrats want to raise taxes," Pawlenty said.
Talk about state finances was political for Pawlenty and Pogemiller, but more ominous for others.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, was not thrilled with this year's budget-balancing plan, given concerns that the state's finances will be worse in 2009, when the Legislature must pass a new two-year state budget.
"I would characterize it as the lull before the storm," he said of the 2008 session. "We probably can't claim great fiscal responsibility."
The Legislature faces a "huge problem" within months, he said.
"We satisfied a lot of interests and we are going to kind of limp along," he said of this session.
Worry about 2009 was bipartisan.
"The biggest successes were the things we stopped," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.
Garofalo said the Legislature is going to face even more severe budget problems in 2009, and the budget-balancing plan this year that relied heavily on reserve funds will make the situation worse.
"This is a victory for short-term thinking and political expediency," he said.
One of the major things lawmakers did was balance the budget. The $935 million balancing act was accomplished by cutting many state agencies' budgets 4 percent, finding money in various funds throughout state government and closing a loophole that allowed some multi-national companies to avoid taxes.
Democrats and Pawlenty called a property tax package significant.
Pawlenty said that limiting how much local governments can raise property taxes and increasing a property tax refund program will reduce taxes $460 million.
Another $64 million will be given to cities and counties under the assumption that if they get more state money they will not need to raise taxes as much.
The governor predicted homeowners' property taxes will fall 20 percent to 30 percent because of actions taken in the last few days.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, was among most lawmakers to support the tax bill, even though he said he generally opposes state-imposed local property tax caps. However, he said property tax relief and new money for cities and counties made the property tax cap easier to swallow.
"It's harder to argue against them when you're getting additional aid," he said.
Even though in recent days, budget balancing and taxes gained much of the attention, it was the work that occurred early on that may have the most widespread impact.
"Projects all around the state would still be on the backburner if not for our override of the governor's veto of transportation funding," Pogemiller said. "Putting people back to work was our highest priority and the transportation bill alone has the possibility of creating 30,000 direct and indirect jobs a year. Our state's roads and bridges were crumbling but bold leadership by the House and Senate put us on track to safer roads and bridges."
Also early on, lawmakers passed a public works funding bill that, when combined with last-minute additions on Sunday, will spend $823 million on colleges, hockey arenas, passenger rail and other infrastructure needs.
And a constitutional amendment asking Minnesotans to approve a slight sales tax increase to fund outdoors and arts programs passed in February, with voters getting their chance to decide the issue in November.
Overall, Pawlenty and DFL leaders turned what began as a contentious session into one of at least a temporary peace and harmony, with some accomplishments everyone can claim.
Pawlenty may be a hockey fan, but he used another sports analogy to sum up the session: "It's the Capitol equivalent of catching a big walleye. It's a keeper."
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said session highlights included the bonding bill and a modest increase in nursing home workers' pay.
Howes said the session also was void of sharp partisan attacks, "and that's good."
Howes supported the tax package, but said it will not cut homeowners' property taxes.
"No one will see their property taxes go down," Howes said, citing numerous factors in property tax calculations. "They always go up."
Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, applauded the Legislature's approval of a one-time funding boost for Minnesota school districts.
"It's enough to make a difference for schools," she said.
The new school money means some districts may be able to delay local levy measures, Sailer said.
Passage of a health-care reform bill easily was the session highlight for Rep. Tom Huntley. The Duluth Democrat, who authored the health-care bill in the House, said it is the first step toward further reforms in future years.
"We're starting the path to changing the way health care is delivered," Huntley said. "That's the biggest thing for me."
Freshman Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, said he was glad the Legislature balanced the state budget without raising taxes.
Drazkowski also said he was happy that health care reform is being addressed, even though the package lawmakers approved did not include many private market-based measures.
"I think it's a success that we've moved forward an increment anyway," Drazkowski said.
The modest education funding boost that all schools will get was calculated in a more fair way than most school funding, said Rep. Rod Hamilton said.
However, the Mountain Lake Republican said it did not resolve his concerns about inequitable school funding around the state. The issue will be debated again next year.
Still, Hamilton said the governor and Democrat-led Legislature ended the session with a good compromise on budget, tax and health care issues.
Hamilton and Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, both liked the transportation package approved earlier this year. It will expedite highway 60 construction in their area of southwestern Minnesota.
"We got a good road bill," Vickerman said. "We had to override to do it, but it was good."
Vickerman also said the state's military veterans and its agriculture industry are better off after Pawlenty signed off on a bill he authored that dealt with those areas.
There were several accomplishments in a tough year, Rep. Bud Heidgerken said, citing a bump in school funding, health care work and property tax relief.
"It's about as good as we can expect with the budget woes that we have," Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said.
Stumpf said it was good that schools saw a modest increase in state funding this year. District reports show many are planning budget cuts, said Stumpf, a leading lawmaker on education funding.
"I think the education component of our budget did well," he said.
Lanning said the package of public construction projects approved this year helped the state and his legislative district.
"That clearly is the big achievement," Lanning said. "We got almost everything we asked for."
Lanning represents the same area in northwestern Minnesota as Sen. Keith Langseth, chairman of the committee that decides funding for public works projects.
All sides can claim victories this year, Lanning said.
"I think everybody comes away having won some things, and that's the way it ought to work," he said.
Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said he was glad the Legislature approved a transportation funding bill this year as well as a budget-balancing package, health care reform and a plan to fund public construction projects.
It was not as good a year, though, for lawmakers hoping to pass certain energy legislation, Dille said.
"We all have our little victories and our little defeats," he said.
Dille was among Republicans who supported the transportation spending package earlier this year, and said he disagrees with the GOP's plan to make the gas tax hike a major issue in the fall House election. Dille said the argument that the Legislature's gas tax increase is the reason for record-high gas prices is "propaganda."