In a day that saw a filled-to-the-brim press conference in the Governor’s Reception Room, a mini-protest by the Minnesota Coalition for a People’s Bailout, and some not so thinly veiled and unsolicited advice by the DFL leadership as to what the Governor should do with his economic and job development team, the first battle lines were drawn in what should be a fascinating new legislative session in St. Paul next year.
Minnesota’s Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson and state economist Tom Stinson started the day by laying out the bad news in a budget forecast announcement that revealed a $426 million deficit in the 2008-2009 biennium and a $4.8 billion deficit for 2010-2011. Stinson stated the current state of the economy is “just plain ugly�? and the “worst economy in 25 years and perhaps the worst since World War II.�?
A small gathering outside Room 15 at the Capitol offered their solution by repeating the chant, “Tax the rich! Tax the rich! Hey politicians we’ve got the fix!�? The group, a new coalition called Minnesota Coalition for a People’s Bailout, is fearful the budget deficit will be borne on the backs of the poor. The coalition, which includes Deb Konechne of the Welfare Rights Committee of Minnesota, supports tax increases on the rich, although she was not able to provide a specific definition of what income level makes one rich enough to deserve such tax increases. Konechne summarized her coalition’s position as, “Corporations are getting bailout after bailout – what we need is a people’s bailout.�?
Perhaps the most curious strategic move of the afternoon occurred during Governor Tim Pawlenty’s press conference. The Governor led his discussion of the budget crisis by advertising the fact that Minnesota ranked just 36th in job growth during the past five years – at a growth rate of 3.46 percent. This is well behind its neighbors to the West:
· South Dakota (#13): 8.92 percent
· North Dakota (#14): 8.64 percent
And to the south:
· Iowa (#27): 5.46 percent
(Wisconsin, at #41, has had just a 2.57 percent job growth rate in the last five years).
Pawlenty highlighted this data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to point out that of the 35 states ahead of Minnesota in job growth, only 6 had a higher per capita state and local government-spending rate. Pawlenty offered this correlation as causation to bolster his point that Minnesota needs to “Spend less not more to increase its growth.�?
With an economy that is not growing – and perhaps receding – Pawlenty said the 19 percent average spending increases sustained in the state’s General Fund over the past 50 years is “Not sustainable, and not responsible. The math doesn’t work.�?
When it was pointed out to the Governor that he had overseen more deficits than surpluses in his tenure, Pawlenty did not take the bait and excuse away those facts with national and international circumstances beyond his control: “I don’t consider myself a victim,�? he stated flatly. However, earlier in his remarks, Pawlenty severely criticized the federal government, its stimulus package(s), and its mindset to “Pay credit card debt with credit cards.�? Pawlenty accused the federal government as being “engaged in a very elabroate ponzi scheme�? that is “out of control�? and “addicted to a culture of debt.�?
DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich picked up on the job growth data introduced by Pawlenty earlier in the afternoon, emphasizing, along with DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, that “This is not a revenue problem, this is a jobs problem.�?
Does that mean the DFL is not considering raising taxes this session? “It’s important to keep everything on the table,�? said Sertich.
The DFL echoed Governor Pawlenty’s call to trim the budget, but stated there is no silver bullet to the state’s economic woes and anyone who says there is a single solution on Day 1 is “neither serious nor thoughtful,�? according to Sertich. This may have been a subtle jab at the Governor who is adamant about not raising taxes.
The DFL refused at this time to prioritize their budget as Pawlenty had done in his news conference: 1) Military and veterans, 2) Public safety, and 3) K-12 Education. Sertich maintained no budget area is off the table.
Emphasizing the need for the state to be more aggressive in creating jobs in research and development, green technology, and bio-medical fields, Speaker Kelliher stated, “What we are doing is not working in the economic development area.�? Majority leader Pogemiller took that as a cue to offer his solution: “We need a new set of leadership in that area. I don’t think I could be more clear. We need a new set of leadership in the job development area.�? (i.e. Commissioner Dan McElroy of the Department of Employment and Economic Development).
Smart Politics will continue its expanded coverage of state politics in the new legislative session, mindful of what one interested citizen from Chaska offered to me about political bloggers at the budget briefing earlier today. The elderly man stated he doesn’t trust bloggers and likened reading political blogs to, “Going to McDonalds and talking politics with eight to ten old folks drinking coffee. After you leave you feel like you didn’t learn anything.�? The skeptic admitted however, that “You do feel better about yourself if you happened to have agreed with them.” Smart Politics, as a nonpartisan blog, is an equal opportunity offender; therefore, while it is certain we will not make our entire audience “feel good,�? we will strive to serve our primary mission, and that is to insure that our readership learn something.