May 2005 Archive

May 27, 2005
Nothing moving

The Memorial Day weekend is nearly here and there's no movement toward an agreement to end the special session. Gov. Pawlenty's gamble to call lawmakers back into session immediately has not generated the pressure he thought it would to get a deal done. The June 30 end of the biennium is the actual deadline, and at this point it's hard to see what will spark an agreement before then.

All that is by way of saying there's not much Capitol news to talk about today. So let me get to a few things I've ignored. Remember last year when KMSP-TV made a big splash by reporting about drinking at the Capitol at the end of the session? They tried to follow up this year, and frankly, didn't make much of a splash this time.

The FOX 9 Investigators didn't see open drinking either. We can't say who drained these wine bottles. We found them in the recycling bins in the Republican office complex in the State Office Building.

On the final night of the session, the ranking Republican finds nothing but pop cans and water bottles in the recycling bins but remember, everyone's on their best behavior this night. Sviggum was even willing to open Republican refrigerators in some representatives’ offices. We found no booze in those refrigerators.

Were other lawmakers willing to do the same?

Reporter: "Steve Sviggum showed us his refrigerator."

James Metzen/President of the Senate (DFL): "Ours are empty. I have to go back to work."

Reporter: "How about when you come back? ' Because last year you had a fair amount of alcohol in there."

Last year, in Metzen's office, FOX 9's hidden cameras caught former Rep. Scott Wasiluk and one of the Senate Secretaries helping themselves to the liquor in Senator Metzen's office.

What about this year?

Yes, what about this year? They found a few bottles in the trash, but nobody caught in the act. I guess that means there was either less drinking or people learned to hide from their hidden cameras.

There's more to report about people who want to run for Gov. Pawlenty's job. Brian Bakst of the Associated Press has this story:

Two more potential challengers to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty took steps this week toward running; the Independence Party's Peter Hutchinson filed papers Monday forming a campaign committee and DFL state Sen. Steve Kelley scheduled a kickoff event for next week after filing his papers Wednesday.

While the general election is 18 months off, this summer will be decision time for candidates giving the race some thought. They need to leave themselves enough time to woo the party faithful ahead of the March precinct caucuses, which will set the stage for next summer's party endorsing conventions.

Pawlenty hasn't officially said he will run for a second, four-year term. If he does, he has a virtual lock on the Republican nomination.

This is an indication of how slow things really are at the Capitol. Rpeorters are now looking ahead to November of 2006. Have a good Memorial Day weekend.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:32 AM

May 26, 2005
Tax versus fee

I got a call the other day from a listener who asked me why we weren't calling Gov. Pawlenty's cigarette "fee" a "tax." Actually, this sharp-eared listener had heard a newscast that referred to a "75 cent charge" on a pack of cigarettes. I had to confess he was right. A "charge" certainly didn't make any sense. Most of the people who work on tax policy at the Capitol say the governor's proposal is a tax, even though Pawlenty insists it's a fee. So we've made a decision at MPR that we will generally refer to it as a tax and do our best to put it in context.

Now that we have that out of the way, the debate has begun at the Capitol about what should be done with a higher cigarette tax. MPR's Tom Scheck has the story:

Gov. Pawlenty's office hasn't released a specific bill yet on the proposed tax, but he says he would dedicate the entire $380 million to treat smoking-related diseases. What troubles health care advocates is that Pawlenty also wants to shift $280 million from his original health care budget proposal and dedicate that money to public education. Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the proposal should satisfy Senate DFLers who want increases for schools and health care. "The net effect is it helps provide revenues and helps us move toward the position as an administration move closer to the Senate's position on education and the Senate's position on health and human services," said Goodno.

But others argue that Pawlenty is relying on accounting shifts in an attempt to dodge the charge he's breaking his no-new-tax pledge. Pawlenty calls the proposed charge on cigarettes a "health impact fee." Critics say he should be calling his proposal a tax since the money isn't all being spent on health care programs.

Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, says Pawlenty and House Republicans should find another revenue source if they want to provide more money for public education.

"If you're going to do a fee, it should be directly related to the reason it's raised," said Lourey. "This is a health impact fee. I think the regular citizen would say 'well then it should be going to the things in health care budget.'"

And there may be some progress in negotiations on health care. Teeny, tiny progress, yes, but progress. The Star Tribune reports on an idea proposed by Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis:

Specifically, the Senate plan would cut state spending on the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program -- now funded by the state general fund -- by moving most of its enrollees onto MinnesotaCare. MinnesotaCare is funded by a separate fee paid by health care providers.

The idea shares some common ground with budget plans from the governor and the House, which tap the MinnesotaCare funding pool to pay for all of GAMC. Those plans also call for removing an estimated 47,000 adults without children from MinnesotaCare, in part, to make room for the GAMC program.

"I'm moving people into a permanent medical home in a way that doesn't cut anyone from eligibility," Berglin told Pawlenty and Sviggum. She said GAMC would become an "entrance point" insurance program for adults without children, who would move onto MinnesotaCare as they found jobs.

Both Pawlenty and Sviggum said they were interested in the idea, but they were concerned that it didn't move the Senate significantly closer to their budget targets. Said Pawlenty: "Let's see what we can do with this and get back to you."

On the political front, MPR's Laura McCallum has news of Attorney General Mike Hatch raising more money to run against Pawlenty:

Hatch says he won't make a final decision on the race until this summer, but he clearly relishes the chance to challenge Pawlenty.

"I'm not happy with the way the state's being managed -- absolutely not happy with it. It is very heavy on public relations and very light on the content," according to Hatch.

Hatch says Pawlenty has underfunded health care and education, and is critical of the governor's record on job creation.

Pawlenty hasn't formally announced his re-election campaign, but has said he plans to run for a second term.

McCallum says another DFLer, Bud Philbrook is also actively campaigning.

And more confirmation that Minnesotans like to vote. The Pioneer Press has the numbers to prove it:

It's official: Minnesota had the highest voter turnout — 79 percent — of any state in the nation in the 2004 general election, the U.S. Census Bureau reports today.

That marked a significant increase from the 2000 election, when 70 percent of Minnesotans 18 and older voted.

Wisconsin had the second-highest voter turnout with 77 percent. Nationally, the turnout was a much lower: 64 percent, up from 60 percent in 2000.

You know what they say: if you don't vote, you can't complain. So 79 percent of you, gripe away. The rest of you 21 percent, pipe down!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:45 AM

May 25, 2005
Dogs and ponies

Did Gov. Pawlenty really think opening negotiations to the press would result in a breakthrough? Probably not. Maybe he hoped to embarrass DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson or to show that Johnson is not interested in real negotiations. In any case, the first negotiating session of the special session resulted in squatski. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty convened the 45 minute discussion his reception room -- and extended future invitations to keep meeting throughout the week and into Memorial Day weekend. But judging from the barely concealed frustrations and occasional tensions, the offer may not bear much fruit.

Late last week, Pawlenty proposed a 75-cent per pack fee on cigarettes to jumpstart budget talks. So far, Senate Democrats haven't directly responded to that offer. The governor's plan would inject an extra $241 million into K-12 education and another $100 million into health care services. He says the question now is whether that's sufficient to meet DFL spending priorities.

"If that is insufficient from your perspective, perhaps our time is best spent identifying, you know, incremental, other ways to meet some of your needs or concerns in the health and human service area in addition to what we've put on the table," he said.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson steadfastly refused to touch the subject of revenue -- either how much is needed or how it might be raised. Instead, he requested that informal working groups pick up where House-Senate conference committees left off when the regular session ran out of time.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum agreed to set up the working groups, but argued they'll accomplish nothing unless the governor and legislative leaders agree to a global agreement that matches revenues to spending. Sviggum asked Johnson to return with a global Senate offer -- but got no committment.

So basically things are exactly where they were Friday night. Except the governor has called a special session. As noted yesterday, if the goal of calling the session immediately was to put pressure on Johnson, it didn't work. The working deadline is clearly the June 30 end of the biennium. If there isn't a deal by then parts of state government shut down.

The Star Tribune notes that at least some lawmakers hope to save taxpayers a little money on the special session:

Most members of the large class of 17 new DFLers elected to the House last fall -- beneficiaries of a wave of anti-incumbent anger after the failure of the 2004 legislative session -- will not accept the $66 per diem payment to which legislators are entitled each day of the special session.

"We're not making a big deal out of it," said Rep. Sandra Peterson, DFL-New Hope. "But it's a way of making our point that we made a commitment to get our work done."

Most of the freshman members already have notified fiscal managers that they will not accept the per diem, which is provided to help legislators defray incidental expenses, Peterson said.

A few legislators decline per diem or collect reduced amounts, but most others are expected to collect the stipend and other expense reimbursements, pushing the total cost of the special session to about $20,000 a day, according to estimates prepared by legislative fiscal officers.

Sooner or later someone at the Capitol will bring up that $20,000 figure. Remember, the Legislature failed to get the job done, but the governor chose to call the special session before there was an agreement on the big picture.

Shifting to Washington, should Minnesotans be wondering why neither of our Senators was among the group in the middle that engineered a deal to preserve the filibuster? Minnesota seems to be a "purple" state, not quite red and not quite blue, but the two Senators are reliable votes for their parties. MPR's All Things Considered talked to both Senators Tuesday. This item boils down what they said:

When it comes to nominees to the Supreme Court, Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman says he's not convinced Democrats would allow a confirmation vote.

"If in fact this holds and folks agree not to use the filibuster, then I think it'll be a good thing, and I'll be there to applaud it. But if it doesn't we may well find ourselves back at the same point," he said.

Democrat Mark Dayton said he doesn't like the Senate compromise that allows up or down votes on the President's judicial nominees.

"There's not much I like in the content of the agreement of the 14 Senators who acted independently of their caucuses. It was more of a capitulation than a compromise. They preserved the right to filibuster judicial nominees by promising not to do it," he said.

So in other words Minnesota's Senators agree on one thing. Their votes will continue to cancel each other out.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:46 AM

May 24, 2005
Poor closers

Did Gov. Tim Pawlenty make a mistake by calling lawmakers back so soon? You've probably heard by now that Pawlenty called the Legislature back into special session one minute after they adjourned the regular session. It played well on the early TV news. "Get back to work," he said. But will it help get a deal done on the budget? Maybe not, according to MPR's Laura McCallum:

Gov. Pawlenty says he decided to call a special session immediately so that Legislators wouldn't go home and forget about the need to finish the budget.

"If you're all here having your schedules disrupted with vacations and family commitments and job commitments and they're all barking at each other, that by itself becomes a pressure point," he said.

If the Legislature can't agree on a new two-year budget by July 1, some state programs and services will shut down. Since July 1 is considered the next deadline, many lawmakers are grumbling about the governor's decision to call them back immediately.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says Pawlenty should have waited a few days.

"We've been here essentially for four and a half months, five to six days a week, and with Memorial Day simply around the corner, I thought it would have been smarter to allow us to have some time off," Johnson said.

Similar sentiments are heard in the Star Tribune's story:

Meanwhile, some Republican legislators fretted openly about the prospect of a "runaway" special session. That's because while only the governor can call a special session, only legislators can agree to end one.

"I don't know if it was the most wise decision," House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said Monday night. "Once a [special] session is called, it has its own life. I have significant concerns about a runaway session. But the governor has called, and I support him. The House will be here."

And while there will no doubt be a series of stories featuring ordinary Minnesotans griping about the Legislature's inability to get its work done, the Star Tribune editorial page takes a "glass half full" view of the ninth special session in 11 years:

Irritation with another lawmaking session going into overtime is understandable. But Minnesotans should also understand this: The issues that remain to be resolved at the Capitol -- education, transportation and human services funding, and the taxes to pay for them -- are the big, thorny ones. They are central to the challenge state government confronts in the next several decades: How can Minnesota best position itself to compete in a knowledge-based global economy, at a time when its population is both older and more diverse than ever before?

Wow, and I thought it was just income taxes versus cigarette fees. I need to start thinking bigger.

Away from the Capitol now to the 2006 campaign. The Associated Press reports America's most famous whistleblower is once again pondering a run for Congress:

Coleen Rowley is considering a race for Congress in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, the former FBI whistle-blower told The Associated Press Monday.

Rowley, 50, would run as a Democrat in the seat currently held by GOP Rep. John Kline. Kline's 2004 opponent, Teresa Daly, said she has not made a decision on whether to run again.

Rowley, who retired from the FBI last year, said she's spoken to people to get their input, both inside and outside of politics, but has been put off by some suggestions that she get a "makeover."

"I've butted heads with a few people - anyone who tells me I have to spruce up my hair and buy a new wardrobe," Rowley said, declining to identify the source of this unwanted advice. "I haven't worn makeup since I was 21. You have to be authentic and genuine in serving the populace."

It's good she's already thinking about the big issues. What's that got to do with the knowledge-based global economy?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:36 AM

May 23, 2005
Deadline day

So, after five months the session must end. And once again lawmakers have not finished their work. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

On the bad thing side, the major accomplishments of the regular session will be the bonding bill and the public safety bill--in other words, the work they were supposed to have done LAST year. On the good thing side, they're arguing about big issues: education spending, health care, taxes and transportation. Those are the issues we want politicians to deal with, and they're not ducking them, even if progress is slow.

Is it more important to finish on time or to come up with a good product? Well, last year they finished on time, but they got nothing done. And a bunch of GOP incumbents lost their seats.

So let's go to the news. The governor's proposal of a new 75 cent per pack fee on cigarettes was meant to get negotiations going. It didn't, at least over the weekend. In the Pioneer Press Patrick Sweeney notes that special sessions aren't so special after all:

This will be the third time in a row that Minnesota lawmakers have failed to approve a biennial budget by the constitutional deadline. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said Sunday the governor was "weighing his options" about when to call legislators back to the Capitol for a special session.

"A special session is something that shouldn't be expected, but it's necessary if we're to come out with a finished product," said Rep. Larry Hosch, a Democrat from St. Joseph. "But we should be criticized for it."

Hosch is one of a number of freshmen legislators who campaigned on a get-the-job-done platform in 2004 after lawmakers walked away from the Capitol after failing to approve a capital construction plan or finish most of the other work they faced. He is leading many of those freshmen in promising to refuse their daily expense payments during a special session.

There is nothing unique about Minnesota lawmakers failing to finish their work on time.

"In economic hard times or when the budget is tight, you almost always have a hard time passing a budget because you have so many competing interest groups trying to protect their programs, whether it's education or health care or transportation," said Brenda Erickson, a senior research fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Compared to other states, Minnesota hasn't had that many special sessions."

But what about that cigarette tax, um, fee? Shouldn't that have broken the gridlock? Not necessarily, says MPR's Michael Khoo:

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the Pawlenty tobacco fee should be enough to lock up a budget deal.

"To hear that some would say -- anybody would say -- it's not enough, you know, you've got to ask, you know, are they really being reasonable? Are they just trying to bring up roadblocks? Are they trying to bring meltdown to the session? I mean, you have to ask those things."

Even so, Sviggum doesn't just have problems from Democrats with larger spending appetites. On the Republican side, a number of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have balked at the cigarette charge. That makes it all the more important to reach agreement with Democrats who can help pass a compromise budget if some fiscal conservatives reject the new revenue. But Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says despite repeated offers no Democrats have agreed to sit down and be briefed on the governor's proposal.

"Friday afternoon the governor makes a significant, substantial offer to try to move things ahead and wrap this legislative session up in a timely manner. And we haven't heard back from the Senate Democrats," he said.

McClung, like Sviggum, also warned DFLers not to get too far ahead of themselves. He says the governor's cigarette assessment was meant as a compromise -- not an invitation to explore other fees, taxes and revenues. University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs says Democrats should heed that warning.

"The Democrats are fooling themselves if they think this governor is rudderless and is running up a white flag. I don't see it that way at all. I think the governor is making a kind of mid-course correction. He knows he has to get a budget through," he said.

Finally, at least DFLers were able to agree on something over the weekend. MPR's Laura McCallum had this item:

More than 1,000 Democrats from around the state have selected Brian Melendez as the new state party chair. At a DFL central committee meeting in St. Cloud Saturday, delegates chose Melendez over former state representative Betty Folliard and former Wellstone staffer Josh Syrjamake. Melendez chairs the Minneapolis and Fifth Congressional district DFL, and says he looks forward to the new challenge.

"This is basically the same job that I've been doing at the local level for the past eight years. I've pretty much done what I could for Minneapolis. I've served four terms. It's time for them to have a change. It's time for me to have a change," he said.

Melendez replaces Mike Erlandson, who decided not to seek a fourth term as party chair.

And as for the fate of this column, I guess I'll keep writing until the end of the special session. After that, who knows? Would you like me to keep going? Let me know.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:42 AM

May 20, 2005
Gov. Roadblock vs Sen. Stall

Gov. Tim Pawlenty Thursday made good on his promise to veto the transportation budget bill, and in doing so set off a war of words with Senate majority Leader Dean Johnson.

Let's start with the veto and MPR's Michael Khoo:

In an unusual public veto ceremony, Gov. Pawlenty restated his long-held opposition to raising state taxes -- and said his veto should come as a surprise to no one.

"I have warned them and told them this would happen. But rather than working on bill that could pass and be accomplished, they want to spend time and resources and energy -- wasting it, I might add -- on this exercise to make a political point when they could be working on a bill that might actually be signed into law," he said.

Pawlenty took particular aim at the bill's proposed dime-a-gallon hike in the current 20 cent gas tax. But he says the bill was also riddled with technical flaws and drafting errors. All told, the transportation package would have provided almost $7.5 billion over the next ten years to roads, bridges and mass transit. It was passed by the DFL-controlled Senate on Wednesday after a group of maverick Republicans defied GOP leaders in the House and helped shepherd it through that body a week earlier. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson predicted that the governor would pay a price for his veto -- and returned the charge of partisan gamesmanship.

"I think the governor has miscalculated this political decision. And the reason I say that, many of his past supporters have called, and they are irritated. Gov. Roadblock, take down the barriers. Start to compromise," he said.

Something tells me you may hear that "Gov. Roadblock" sobriquet again. But Pawlenty along, with House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Republican leader Dick Day (both of whom have said they personally support a higher gas tax) are blaming the end of the session pile-up on Johnson. This is from the Pioneer Press:

Pawlenty said it was Senate DFLers who were unwilling to compromise. "Rather than working on a bill that could pass and be accomplished, they want to spend time and resources and energy — wasting it, I might add — on this exercise to make a political point," he said. He expects them to "try to blame me for traffic congestion, even though they haven't done diddly in 15 years."

Although Pawlenty opposes a gas tax increase, he reiterated that he's willing to compromise by letting the voters decide the question through a constitutional amendment.

"If you want to have a gas tax, put it on the ballot," he said.

Amid the rancor over the transportation bill comes the admission that a special session is now all but inevitable. Patrick Sweeney has a story in the Pioneer Press that raises a possible way out:

Many lawmakers — most Democrats and a significant number of Republicans — say the key to breaking the budget impasse is for Pawlenty to accept a new wholesale charge of 50 cents to $1 a pack on cigarettes and pledge the proceeds to health care. He would call the charge a fee; Democrats and probably many other people would call it a tax.

"If you're going to do anything in the tax area, that's the one I think is possible in an 11th-hour deal," said Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. Seifert said he did not personally support a new fee or tax on cigarettes, but he said he suspected enough House Republicans do support it that they eventually could join the House DFL majority to approve such a charge during a special session.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said the cigarette proposal is the "cigar box full of money hanging out there" that could end the budget dispute.

It's still unclear whether the governor would accept the measure which would raise about $470 million over the biennium. Keep an ear to the radio over the weekend. MPR's reporters will be at the Capitol following everything.

One final note, it looks like Al Franken is serious about running for Senate in 2008. The Star Tribune has this item:

Franken, 53, said he and his wife, Frannie, bought a townhouse in a new development on the edge of downtown Minneapolis late last month.

He plans to shuttle between his two homes between now and the beginning of 2006, when he also plans to relocate his daily three-hour radio show broadcast on the liberal Air America network to Minnesota.

"I haven't figured out the details or the staffing yet," Franken said.

For the past 18 months he has been publicly flirting with the idea of running for the seat once held by his friend and political mentor, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in 2002.

Franken, who grew up in St. Louis Park, has not lived in Minnesota since he was 22.

Franken tells the Strib that if there's a DFL candidate with a better chance of beating Norm Coleman in '08 he'll campaign for that candidate.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:35 AM

May 19, 2005
Gas, guns and good guys

Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he'll veto the dime a gallon gas tax increase headed to his desk, he still expects part of the bill to become law. Democrats in the Senate seem to think there's still a chance the governor will change his mind and sign the least that's what they say in MPR's Michael Khoo's report:

Of the state's eight major budget bills, transportation is now the only one to pass both houses and head for Gov. Pawlenty's desk. But it's not likely to get much further than that. Pawlenty has restated his intention to veto the bill, primarily because of the 10 cent gas tax hike. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, however, said he thinks Pawlenty can be prevailed upon to change his mind.

"Governor, this is a referendum on your leadership. Not on your political agenda, on the leadership of this state. That's what this is about," he said.

The bill passed in the Senate on a straight party-line vote with DFLers and the Legislature's lone independent in support. It originated, however, on the House side, where 10 Republicans defied Pawlenty and GOP leadership first to propose the gas tax increase and then to side with Democrats in passing it. The current gas tax stands at 20 cents per gallon and hasn't been increased since 1988.

That part of the bill the governor thinks will survive is something he proposed in the first place. As Khoo explains, if voters approve it, other areas of state spending will suffer:

Pawlenty has also proposed constitutionally dedicating the sales tax paid on car purchases to roads and transit. That idea, actually, is contained in the bill which he's about to veto. But since governors aren't allowed to veto potential constitutional amendments, Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said it will survive the veto pen.

"That was the cornerstone of Gov. Pawlenty's transportation package that he unveiled in December. And that will move forward. That's a good start towards getting a jump on our road projects," he said.

The dedicated motor vehicle sales tax would shift about $2.5 billion to transportation over 10 years -- but it's not a net increase in overall money to the state. It would come from funds that would otherwise have been used for other state needs, including education, health care or public safety.

And opponents will certainly point that out if the provision ends up on the ballot next year.

In a move that surprised no one, the House passed a new version of the handgun permit law and sent it to the governor's desk. Pawlenty says he'll sign it, and had this to say about the popularity of the bill on MPR's Midday program Wednesday:

"More people have been injured by light rail than the concealed carry bill."

Two people have been killed in light rail transit accidents. We know for sure that one person has been killed, allegedly by someone who got a permit under the concealed carry law. But I also found this on the Minnesota Safety Council Web site:

In 2001, 72 children ages 14 and under died from unintentional firearm-related injuries. Children ages 10 to 14 accounted for 54 percent of these deaths.

In 2002, more than 800 children ages 14 and under were treated in hospital emergency rooms for unintentional firearm-related injuries; 35 percent of these injuries were severe enough to require hospitalization.

The unintentional firearm injury death rate among children ages 14 and under in the United States is nine times higher than in 25 other industrialized countries combined.

Comparing the safety record of handguns to LRT may not be the best strategy. The House held a moment of silence for Billy Walsh, the Nye's bouncer killed by a handgun last week, before they voted to re-pass the gun permit bill. I wonder if any votes would have changed if they had had a chance to read the column by Walsh's friend Harry Kaiser in today's Star Tribune:

I wouldn't be writing any of this if Billy hadn't been shot. Ever since conceal-and-carry passed, however, I have feared some awful crime of convenience, especially involving alcohol. I know that conceal-and-carry is in front of the Legislature right now as lawmakers try to make it technically constitutional. I would like to argue against it coolly, cleanly and rationally. But I'm just so angry.

I thought -- why do you need to be clean and cool to argue against putting more guns on the street? What's rational about making it more convenient for people to instigate violence? I know how defenseless we all feel because all the "bad guys" have guns. But people have to start standing up and saying that we don't want the principle of self-defense to devolve into a kind of vigilantism, where everyone is packing, only because the "other guy" might be a criminal.

Everyone knows that "Guns don't kill people; people do," and that "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns." But it's not too late to return to a time where we only had the truly criminal-minded to fear, without potentially adding to the list everyone we tick off on the street or on the highway.

Click on the link and read that whole column and then talk to me about LRT.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:20 AM

May 18, 2005
Casino R.I.P.?

Could this really be the end of Gov. Pawlenty's casino plan?
It sure looks like Pawlenty's quest for gambling cash, or fairness as he called it, has met its Waterloo in the House tax committee. Here's the lead from the Star Tribune story:

Admitting that they faced imminent defeat, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his allies Tuesday withdrew their plan for state-sponsored casinos at Canterbury Park racetrack from a House committee hours before a scheduled showdown.

"That was done because we had lost a couple of votes over the last 24 hours and no longer have enough votes to pass the bill today," Dan McElroy, Pawlenty's chief of staff, said Tuesday.

The decision underscored the serious obstacles confronting the casino plan. While supporters said the proposal remained alive and could resurface in the House Taxes Committee or become a bargaining chip in budget negotiations, their decision to withdraw the bill is the latest in a series of setbacks for it and other plans to use casinos to help fund state government. One leading DFLer said the proposal was finished.

But you know what they say about the Capitol--nothing is ever dead until lawmakers go home. MPR's Michael Khoo has a look at how the casino bill might return:

What might come up next is a plan that focuses solely on a Canterbury casino without any Native American participation. Such a "racino" plan passed the House two years ago and is widely believed to have more support than options that include Indian bands.

Canterbury President Randy Sampson says he's encouraged that GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate are committed to a pure racino and have suggested that that option has the best chance of passing this year.

"We certainly do want to keep our options open. I think that will play out, obviously, as the session finishes," he said.

But McElroy says Pawlenty is committed to making sure struggling Native American communities have a chance to benefit from any casino deal. He says the governor is unlikely to support a straight racino plan.

The House is scheduled to debate the handgun permit law today, and this unsettling note comes from the Pioneer Press:

Members of the Minnesota House on Tuesday received a threatening e-mail that purported to be from a supporter of an effort to allow Minnesotans easier access to gun permits. But the supporter and Capitol Security said it was a hoax.

"You better vote for us or else," said the e-mail, which appeared to be from Joel Rosenberg, who has worked to change Minnesota's law governing who can get a permit to carry a loaded weapon in public. Minnesota House members are expected to debate the gun bill possibly as early as today.

"If you don't vote for what we want, we will use the Information we have from a former Police Database to blackmail any opponents in our way. This MEANS YOU in the HOUSE," the e-mail said. "This means that people will be sent to your homes, like people were sent to Wes Skoglund's home, to intimidate, and harass, and look in his window," the e-mail said. Skoglund is a state senator from Minneapolis.

"It's fraudulent," said David Gross, an attorney representing Rosenberg. "We have contacted law enforcement and are hoping they can help us get to the bottom of this."

Minnesota Capitol Security and the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension worked Tuesday to figure out who sent the e-mail. In addition, the FBI is investigating.

Something tells me whoever sent the message will realize what a dumb move it was when the FBI shows up.

Finally, a long-time fixture of Minnesota's public police scene has died. Former Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin was 87. This is from MPR's Art Hughes:

Art Naftalin referred to himself as an "unreconstructed liberal". In a 1985 interview with MPR he traced his political roots to growing up Jewish in his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. He remembered his father receiving the first loan in the state under a depression-era federal program which saved the family's home from foreclosure.

"When people talk about getting government off our backs, when people talk about decentralization and abandoning welfare, this doesn't strike a very firm chord in my soul," he said.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:39 AM

May 16, 2005
One week to go

Is there any way to avoid a special session? Does anybody care? There are so many major issues to be resolved it seems impossible for the governor and lawmakers to reach an agreement by May 23. Stranger things have happened, I guess, but let's look at the list again. Taxes, K-12 spending, health and human services, and transportation are the big areas of fundamental disagreement. On the positive side, the big three have reached an agreement on public safety funding, as reported by the Associated Press:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders agreed Sunday night on a $1.685 billion target for the main public safety budget bill of the session but said the details of that, and targets for bigger spending bills, must still be worked out.

The agreement includes the concept of life without parole for the most dangerous sex offenders, Pawlenty, House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson told The Associated Press in a joint conference call.

But the details of which sex offenders would count as "the worst of the worst" and face life imprisonment with no chance of release still must be negotiated in conference committee, they said.

The bill will also include measures to combat methamphetamine, including restrictions on access to ingredients used to make the illegal stimulant, but those details also must be negotiated, they said.

The legislative leaders seemed quite optimistic they can finish in the next week, but they seem like the only ones. Maybe they know something the rest of us don't.

Other issues I haven't mentioned include casino gambling and the proposed new Twins stadium. Both are scheduled for hearings in House committees Monday. The Star Tribune has an interesting take on campaign contributions around the gambling issue:

Legislators expected to cast key votes as early as today on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's latest casino plan received more than $12,000 in campaign contributions last year from gambling interests.

DFLers on the House Taxes Committee got $6,950, mostly from Indian groups that fear the two casinos planned for Canterbury Park racetrack would compete with existing tribal casinos.

Republicans on the committee got $5,150, mostly from Canterbury Park officers and their lobbyists, who are pushing for approval of the governor's plan.

It faces a critical test in the Taxes Committee. Members from both parties on the panel said the contributions from gambling interests amount to a small share of all the money they raise, wouldn't influence their vote and reflect support for longstanding positions they've taken on gambling.

The story raises the classic chicken-and-egg question: which came first, the lawmaker's position on gambling or the money that supports that position?

Finally today a story on which I want to admit a bias. Maybe you heard about the bouncer at Nye's Polonaise Room who was shot in the back last week by a patron he had ejected from the bar. It turns out the man who allegedly shot him had a permit for his handgun. It's not clear when the permit was issued or what criteria were used to judge the suspect's fitness to carry a handgun. Shouldn't the media run this down before the Legislature takes a final vote on whether to re-pass the permit law, which was thrown out by the courts?

Here's my bias. The bouncer who was killed, Bill Walsh, was a high school classmate of mine. He deserved better than to end his life face down on the sidewalk with bullets in his back. The Senate was debating the handgun bill Friday as the story emerged about the shooting.

Maybe the handgun permit and the "concealed carry" law had nothing to do with what happened, but I would hope legislators think very carefully and get all the information before they vote on life and death issues. They owe at least that much to Bill Walsh.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:33 AM

May 13, 2005
Democracy breaks out at the Capitol

It was quite a scene on the House floor Thursday. Just hours after proclaiming he would strip a provision to raise the gas tax from a transportation funding bill, it became clear that Speaker Steve Sviggum couldn't stem the tide in favor of the tax increase. Ten Republicans ended up voting for the bill which includes the 10 cent a gallon gas tax increase. They voted for it despite Sviggum's opposition, despite a veto threat from the governor, and despite delaying tactics by the GOP House leadership that left Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, delivering a filibuster while Republicans met behind closed doors. So what happened? Here's what the Star Tribune said:

"This is a historic opportunity to relieve congestion and take care of rural roads and bridges," said House Majority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul, whose 66-member DFL caucus posted only four no votes on the bill. "We haven't seen this in a generation."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, attributed the bill mostly to "insane Democrats who got greedy, got hoggish." Reminded that his own members, including the chief proponent, Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, had made the passage possible, Sviggum said simply: "They were wrong."

Yikes! Does the speaker help himself by ripping his own members? Is it really insane to support a gas tax increase, a tax which Sviggum himself has been saying for months should be higher?

Assuming the DFL-controlled Senate accepts the House bill and sends it to Gov. Pawlenty, it's up to the governor to decide if he sticks with his "no new taxes" pledge or goes along with a majority of the Legislature. MPR's Tom Scheck says Pawlenty will stick with the pledge:

Pawlenty is not willing to waver on his pledge. Pawlenty's chief of staff, Dan McElroy, said Pawlenty would only support a gas tax if it receives voter approval.

"The governor has been very clear that he can't approve a gas tax that doesn't go to the voters. Most gas taxes across the country have gone to the voters. Our constitution has a number of provisions on transportation today," he said.

But House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul says the governor is going to have to do a better job of negotiating with both House and Senate DFLers. He says the governor can no longer rely on House Republicans to protect him from making hard decisions.

"This governor has been molly-coddled for his first two years. He had large Republican majorities that have protected him and he hasn't had to deal with veto overrides. He is going to have to learn the meaning of the word compromise," Entenza said.

The bill now moves to the DFL-controlled Senate. The Senate can pass the House bill and send it to the governor or pass a different bill and negotiate their differences in conference committee.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson wouldn't discuss his intentions, but couldn't resist a jab at the governor.

"There's a tremendous pressure on legislators to put financial resources into our transportation system," according to Johnson. "It's quite evident that the no-new-tax pledge cracked today. The bumper sticker got some rust on it."

The Pioneer Press used a better quote from McElroy:

Asked if there was even a sliver of a chance that Pawlenty would sign a gas tax into law, Pawlenty’s chief of staff, Dan McElroy, said:

“There is a sliver of a chance — if the governor were struck by lightning and the lieutenant governor were to pass a way before it hit his desk. Those are the only circumstances under which I envision this getting signed.”

Good quote--but it is worth noting that no matter what other states have done, there is no requirement in Minnesota that a public vote be held in order to raise the gas tax. The only thing constraining the governor is that pledge he signed for the Taxpayers League.

So what does it all mean? Probably that the chance of a special session is even greater than it already was.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:27 AM

May 12, 2005
Revolt in the House

It finally happened. Enough Republican House members joined DFLers to actually surprise everybody and pass a gas tax increase. House Speaker Steve Sviggum's reaction was to instantly promise to strip the gas tax increase from the transportation budget bill. This all happened in the middle of the night, so you won't read about it in the morning paper. But MPR's Michael Khoo doesn't worry about newspaper deadlines:

It passed on a bare 68-66 majority with seven Republicans joining 61 Democrats, but it was enough for supporters to declare a new shift in the political landscape. Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, offered the gas tax amendment. He says the bipartisan consensus, cobbled together from the rank-and-file, could be extended to other areas of state government despite large differences between legislative leaders in the House and Senate.

"We certainly would hope that that be the case. And it would be a new dawn for Minnesota if that happens, because right now they're a little bit iffy on the edges. And we're trying to get something in the center that moves Minnesota ahead," he said.

Erhardt's amendment would boost the gas tax from the current 20 cents per gallon to 30 cents by 2008. The tax hasn't been increased since 1988. The package would also raise motor vehicle registration fees, direct a portion of the metropolitan sales tax to transit funding, and allow counties to impose their own $20 levy on cars registered in their borders. Over the next 10 years, the package would pump $7.8 billion dollars into transportation projects, just under a quarter of that for public transit.

But it may not last past noon. The amendment was added to the House transportation funding bill, but a final vote on the legislation was delayed until later Thursday.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he expects some members who voted "yes" to reconsider and help strip the amendment from the bill when the body reconvenes.

"It's on the bill for a few hours and when members see the total consequence of the heaviness towards transit, the consequence of a 10 cent gas tax increase, you know, when gas taxes -- gas dollars are -- at the pump, $2 a gallon -- I think that there will be a renewed look at it."

Plus it will give him time to twist some arms. Sviggum's argument is basically this: why bother sending the governor something he will veto? The answer from supporters of the tax increase would be: because the state needs more money for transportation, and the governor's "no new taxes" pledge is what's holding up progress.

It's interesting that majorities in both the House and the Senate (although the Senate hasn't voted yet) will soon be on the record in favor of increasing the gas tax, and it will not happen because of the governor's pledge. It's a rare example of lawmakers voting against the public opinion polls and taking an unpopular stand. It's too soon to say what the fallout might be for Sviggum and Pawlenty.

It's also too soon to say whether this centrist coalition seen by Rep. Erhardt is really ready to flex its muscles, but it sure would be fun if they start pushing on other issues.

A good place to start would be taxes. Its clear how far apart the Senate and the House are now that the House has passed its bill. MPR's Laura McCallum has that story:

The House passed a tax bill on Wednesday that, among other things, would extend alcohol and car rental taxes set to expire.

It would also allow property owners to reverse property tax hikes approved by local officials. The plan pushed by Gov. Pawlenty would send taxpayer satisfaction surveys to property owners each fall. If 20 percent of the postcards returned indicate objections to the level of property taxes, a public vote would be triggered.

Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, says Pawlenty wants to allow people who own multiple properties to fill out a postcard for each one.

"He has great creativity when it comes to giving benefits to his rich friends. In this case, he's actually outdone himself. The more property you have, the more benefit the governor gives you," accordig to Wagenius.

Supporters of the measure say it allows citizens to hold government officials accountable for tax decisions. The House tax bill would also lower state aid for Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, and cut $66 million a year from a program targeted to low-income renters. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, says his bill would let married couples take full advantage of federal tax cuts. And it would spare some middle-income tax filers from getting hit with the so-called alternative minimum tax.

"This bill does a lot to benefit taxpayers, businesses, job creators and citizens and working families across the state of Minnesota," Krinkie said.

But it doesn't raise income taxe like the Senate bill.

Finally, I'm not quite sure why this is a story, but the AP is reporting it, so I'll pass it along to you:

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was involved in an ATV accident over the weekend that caused about $2,500 in damages, according to an accident report.

The governor was not injured, WCCO-TV reported Wednesday.

Pawlenty was riding a 2005 model all-terrain vehicle that's owned by Polaris Corp. and valued at about $7,000. He was riding on a trail near Grand Rapids as part of the Minnesota ATV Association Convention when he hit a tree stump.

About 35 riders were with him at the time.

"The governor just happened to clip it with the corner of the ATV and that was enough to take it out," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung.

Pawlenty was not given a citation, but Department of Natural Resources supervisor Ken Soring said the governor was likely going too fast for the difficult terrain. No drugs or alcohol were involved.

WCCO reports that Polaris will cover the cost of the damages, since it was the company's vehicle.

If you can figure out why that's news please drop me a line. Jesse Ventura probably does three times that much damage every day before breakfast.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:27 AM

May 11, 2005
Stadium alive; gambling hurting

The new stadium plan got its first hearing at the Capitol Tuesday and is looking strong. Meanwhile the governor's two casino plan is taking more hits. First the stadium plan. The first House committee to see it approved it on a 17-5 vote. MPR's one-man news machine Michael Khoo has the story:

Twins officials argue that without the new, open-air facility, the franchise won't generate enough revenue to field a competitive team. Twins Sports president Jerry Bell told members of the House Governmental Operations and Veterans Affairs Committee that time was running out to close a deal.

"The new Twins ballpark is the only way for Minnesotans to enjoy this competitive, affordable, family entertainment for generations to come. The next few weeks, we believe, will determine the future of the Minnesota Twins," he said.

Bell also said that the team would not seek a retractable roof at an extra cost of over $100 million, and that the current proposed design was not even compatible with a roof.

But before a stadium can move forward -- roof or not -- the county needs legislative permission to impose the sales tax and, under current law, would need approval from voters at a referendum. The bill under consideration, however, strikes the referendum requirement. And that's drawing heat from county residents.

John Knight is a Minnetonka attorney who's emerging as a key advocate for a referendum. Knight says the county's final bill, including interest payments on stadium debt, could top $1 billion.

"If we require a voter referendum to replace a school gymnasium or to hire more cops, why would we exempt a $1.1 billion deal that benefits a private business? As voters, we're not asking for anything special. We're asking you to simply respect the law as you have written it as our representatives requiring a referendum," he said.

The committee approved the bill without a referendum.

Things are moving on the gambling front, but it's a little hard to tell if they're going backwards or forwards. The issue of the governor's plan to locate not one but two casinos at the Canterbury Park racetrack. The latest development has Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, ripping the plan. MPR's Khoo has this item:

Pawlenty has proposed opening two separate, state-operated casinos at the racetrack. One would be run in partnership with the White Earth Band of Ojibwe; the other would be a joint-venture with Canterbury. Pawlenty proposed combining the two as a way to increase support.

But GOP Senate Minority Leader Dick Day says the merged plan has become unwieldy and confusing. Day has long supported a non-Indian casino at the racetrack.

"Now all of the sudden with the Native American tribes getting involved, man, this has become the most convoluted, messed-up -- and I'm actually losing support in my own caucus, and I'm losing support amongst Republicans. And I'm losing support, actually, among some of the Democrats," Day said.

Combining the plans also cost supporters the backing of two Native American bands: Red Lake and Leech Lake. Both had signed on to a single state-tribal facility without a Canterbury connection. The various plans remain alive in the House, but are on hold for lack of support. The expected revenues from the casinos are built into budget plans favored by Pawlenty and House Republicans.

This sounds like Day is telling the governor to revert to a straight racino plan. But how does Pawlenty do that after making such a big issue out of fairness as a motive for the state getting into gambling in the first place?

One other item. Blue Cross-Blue Shield is making a big push to raise the cigarette tax. They've got a study that shows smoking costs Minnesotans about $2 billion in extra health care costs. MPR's Tom Scheck (not Michael Khoo) has a story about the health insurer's effort to put a price tag on smoking:

Minnesota's 48 cent a pack tax is currently 37th highest among the states. Raising it a dollar would make it ninth highest.

Sen. Sheila Kiscaden supports the increase. The Independence Party member from Rochester says $1 a pack increase would generate $214 million in new revenue for the state.

"It's kind of odd to be gung ho about a particular tax, but I think that the evidence is there that this tax produces revenue that the state needs; but more importantly has a very positive health benefit," she said.

The main obstacle to a higher tobacco tax is Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He says he won't sign a tobacco tax increase unless lawmakers reduce taxes elsewhere by an equal amount.

"If it's simply fashioned as a tax then I'm not for that. If there's some way to at least consider health impacts and smoking in a way that correlates the cost and it's limited to that system, I'd at least be willing to have the discussion. But not if it's a tax," he said.

Just to update the scorecard, the House and Senate have big differences on taxes, health care, transportation, gambling, and education. So why does the governor continue to travel around giving speeches to Rotary clubs? Shouldn't he be at the Capitol trying to close some deals?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:44 AM

May 10, 2005
Stadium fever

Whatever happened to waiting for the Legislature to actually vote on a bill? The Star Tribune has done a survey of legislators to see where they stand on various issues before they actually vote. It'll be interesting to see if any of the bills they polled on come up for a vote, so we can determine once and for all whether those endless debates in the House actually change anybody's mind. Anyway, the Strib asked lawmakers how they feel about the latest version of the stadium plan:

With more than three-fourths of House members responding, 42 said they favored a deal that would raise the sales tax in Hennepin County. Thirty-six opposed it, and 27 members said they were undecided. The proposal needs 68 votes to pass the 134-member House.

Supported by legislative leaders, the plan appears headed for passage in the Senate, where 33 members replied that they supported the plan -- just one shy of the number needed to pass the 67-person chamber.

Fourteen said they opposed the plan, and 17 said they were undecided.

The survey doesn't necessarily reflect the way that legislators would vote on the measure. They were allowed to respond confidentially, asked only to share their sentiments based on what they know now.

So what then does this survey actually mean?

In the Pioneer Press, there's a profile of author of the stadium bill, Rep. Brad Finstad, R-New Ulm:

Finstad, who was elected in 2002, may lack the experience of many of his colleagues, but the Twins are placing their hopes on his professed passion to find them a new home. The $478 million outdoor ballpark would be financed in part by the Twins, with most coming from a Hennepin County sales tax of 3 cents on a $20 purchase.

Before this session, Finstad had carried low-profile agriculture bills that affected mostly rural Minnesota. But over the next two weeks of a legislative session that must adjourn May 23, he'll be in the spotlight as he fights to get the bill passed without a mandatory referendum.

"We needed a new chief sponsor, and the speaker suggested we have a little visit with Brad,'' said Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports Inc., the Carl Pohlad company that owns the team. "We did that, and I liked him. He thought it was important to get the deal done, and he seemed competitive to me.''

It doesn't hurt to have the speaker behind you either, but even that might not be enough to get the bill through the tax committee.

And if all-stadium-all-the-time gets to be too much for you, how about this item from the St. Cloud Times?:

St. Cloud could end up in one county, if a bill the House of Representatives approved Monday becomes law.

Representatives voted 102-31 in favor of HF1949, which would allow Stearns County to redraw its boundaries to include all of St. Cloud — including the part east of the Mississippi River in Benton and Sherburne counties — if county commissioners and voters agree.

The bill's author, Rep. Joe Opatz, DFL-St. Cloud, said he hoped the vote would energize discussions among local governments and citizens about how to provide services more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Opatz may not pursue a Senate vote on the issue this year.

Finally, some unity in the St. Cloud area.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:33 AM

May 9, 2005
Two weeks out

Two weeks to go in the session, and there's no clear end in sight. If anything, the House Senate and governor appear as far apart as ever. Let's review: The Senate DFL majority wants to raise income taxes on the state's highest earners to spend more on education and health care. The GOP-controlled House wants to cut health care to provide money for education, although not as much as the Senate. The governor says the DFL tax plan is "profoundly stupid," and he's still promoting a state-run casino to try to bring in more revenue.

MPR's Michael Khoo has a look at the budget situation, starting with the DFL tax plan:

For the past couple weeks, the Senate has passed a string of spending bills to fund everything from environmental programs to state government to education. All have attracted bipartisan support. One -- the K-12 appropriations bill -- passed unanimously. So Senate Democrats say their tax plan is simply recognition that those investments come with a price.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says Minnesotans will support the tax hike if they understand it directly funds popular state services.

"Common, everyday folks who are going to work today, they want to know that their children are in school getting an education. They want to know their sons and daughters are over here at the university or in the MnSCU system getting a competitive education. And they want to know they have a health care system that has some kind of a safety net," Johnson said.

In the Pioneer Press, Bill Salisbury takes a look at the role the minority leaders might play in final negotiations:

It takes 68 votes to pass a bill in the House, so Republicans could approve legislation on their own if they stuck together. But they don't. A few GOP mavericks have flaked off on every major budget bill so far, and [House Speaker Steve] Sviggum has had to rely on a handful of DFL votes to pass those measures.

"No bill is going to pass the Minnesota House without Democrats supporting it, so I have to be involved," [Minority Leader Matt]Entenza said last week.

DFLers have a slightly more comfortable margin in the Senate, but they, too, have had to depend on a few Republican votes to pass some of the big spending bills.

"I think Matt and I are going to be relatively important in this whole process when it gets down to the tail end here," [Minority Leader Dick] Day said.

"Of course, all politicians think they're a helluva lot more important than they really are," he added with a chuckle.

And neither minority leader has so far managed to derail either house's majority.

Meanwhile the Star Tribune has done a poll. On Sunday it showed a majority of Minnesotans support a mix of tax increases, spending cuts and fee increases to balance the budget. Today the poll shows support for a gas tax increase slipping. Not too surprising given the price of gas these days.

One reader of this column, Sheila Hart, e-mailed the other day with a response to Gov. Pawlenty's criticism of the DFL tax plan:

Anybody who wants to leave MN because their taxes will go to the 11 percent can go, and I'll take that job so I can have the pleasure of earning over $166,000! How does this equalizing tax affect jobs coming into the state? How greedy can people get that they not only throw themselves into the trough but want every drop? Pay those taxes. Pay for your own health care too while you're at it. My cost for health care is 10 percent of my income. Match that, and the state's health care system will be in good shape.

What do you think? I'm happy to print opposing opinions. Two weeks to go.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:31 AM

May 5, 2005
DFL shows its hand

DFLers on the Senate tax committee finally released their plan Wednesday. Surprise! It's an temporary income tax increase on high earners. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

The Senate plan would raise an estimated $975 million over the next two years by taxing high-level incomes at 11 percent -- that's up from the current maximum rate of just under 8 percent. For married, joint filers the new rate would kick in on taxable incomes over $250,000 a year. For unmarried taxpayers the threshold is just over $166,000.

In all, fewer than 43,000 Minnesotans are expected to be hit by the new rate. And [DFL Sen. Larry] Pogemiller says even then they'd still pay a smaller percentage of their income in total state and local taxes than do middle-income households. Pogemiller says the extra revenue is crucial to pay for increases in K-12 education spending, for state aid to cities and counties, and to maintain the state's publicly-subsidized health care system. He says lawmakers have already signalled an appetite to make those investments.

"Every bill on the Senate floor has been bipartisan, every bill that spends and invests. Someone's got to pay for that. The tax committee just decided how to do that," he said.

But Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung says there's no doubt that if such a tax hike landed on the governor's desk, it would be immediately vetoed. McClung says it would give Minnesota the highest top tax rate in the nation and penalize many small businesses whose tax burdens are computed based on the individual income tax.

"I think in a lot of ways, though, we're about to see a test. We're going to see who controls the DFL. Is it the tax-and-spend Minneapolis liberals? Or is it the common-sense prairie populists they'd like you to believe they are?"

Whoops...he forgot to mention St. Paul and Duluth. The Star Tribune has more from McClung on the tax plan:

Brian McClung called the proposal "astounding," saying that "we want to be No. 1 in a lot of things, but not in income tax rates. This would affect our ability to keep and grow jobs in Minnesota."

McClung said that "if by some fluke, this made it to the governor's desk, it would be vetoed as quickly as we could get the cap off the pen."

But Senate Republican opposition may not run very deep. Bloomington Sen. Bill Belanger, the committee's ranking Republican, said he doubted the rate hike would have much effect on business. "I have to vote against it though," he said. "I'm facing a veto." Asked if there was a reason to oppose the bill other than the prospect of a gubernatorial veto, he replied, "Probably not."

Still, there probably isn't a Republican in the Senate who will vote for this plan. With the governor absolutely unwilling to compromise on a tax increase the question seems to be how long will DFLers hold out for this plan, and how will they put the budget together without it. It should be quite a battle over the next few weeks.

In other Capitol news, the House has passed a K-12 funding bill. It provides a 3 percent increase in the per pupil formula each of the next two eyars, which critics note hardly keeps up with inflation. Here's some of what MPR's Tim Pugmire reported:

Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, chairman of the House Education Policy Committee, says the bill challenges schools to do better. "Minnesota's public schools are second to none in the nation This bill before you today does nothing but strengthen that reputation. But it also doesn't let us sit on our laurels and say we're good, we're very good, we don't have to do anything else," he said.

...Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, took issue with the bill's reliance on property taxes.

"You can pretend in this bill that you're helping. I hope the public really figures this out that this is nothing more than letting us raise our own property taxes. Well governor and thank you members on the other side of the isle. It's pretty easy to find somebody's money when in somebody else's pocket," he said.

DFLers also say the bill doesn't do enough to make up for three previous years of funding freezes. Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-Fridley, said school districts will still face budget cuts and teacher layoffs.

"It reminds me of a bee hive. There is some homey in the bill, but our students and our schools are going to get stung. It gives our communities and our students little hope that the cuts will stop. It offers no hope that our local property tax increases will stop," she said.

Bernardy and other Democrats are counting on a House-Senate conference committee to eventually come up with a larger funding increase.

Is that because House Democrats didn't have the backbone to support a tax increase of their own?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:40 AM

May 4, 2005
Taxing matters

The minimum wage increase is on the front page but the real news is happening in the House tax committee. The chair of the committee, Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, unveiled a bill this week that would redefine the relationship between the state and its largest cities. MPR's Michael Khoo takes a look at the bill:

If the House tax bill becomes law, it could mean $18 million a year less for Minneapolis, $9 million for St. Paul, and just under $700,000 for Duluth. Minneapolis and St. Paul would have the option of recovering that money -- and more -- by raising their own local sales taxes by a half cent. Even that remedy, however, would be subject to voter approval at a referendum. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly told tax committee members that the proposal would be "disastrous."

"The citizens of St. Paul have already stepped up to the challenge of this struggling economy. And I will not ask our families and our neighborhoods to do more. What I ask you to do is to find new ways to support the needs of Minnesota cities. But not on the backs of the people of St. Paul or Minneapolis or Duluth," he said.

The tax bill also makes future property tax increases subject to referendum if enough property owners object. City officials testified that seeking voter approval would inject new uncertainties into the budgeting process and make city governments unmanageable. But tax chair Phil Krinkie says voters have a right to weigh in. And he says they should reject arguments that state cuts are forcing local property taxes up.

"It's just the opposite. The state is spending a considerable amount of money to bring property taxes down!"

The House bill also goes along with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to cut the renter's property tax credit. The Senate tax committee hasn't finished its tax bill, but Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, tells Khoo it will include either an income tax or sales tax increase to pay for increased spending on education.

Speaking of education, the House is expected to debate its version of the K-12 budget bill today. The bill would increase per pupil spending by 3 percent each of the next two years. Republicans have begun running a TV ad (that looks a lot like a campaign ad) calling on people to contact their legislators and tell them they like the GOP approach to the K-12 budget better than the DFL approach.

And the Twins have won the first vote on the latest version of a stadium plan. The Hennepin County Board voted 4-3 to send the plan to the Legislature. This is from the Star Tribune:

More than 50 citizens spoke at a public hearing that began in the early afternoon and then spilled into the evening. As expected, much of Tuesday's debate centered on the plan's most controversial aspect -- a provision that would exempt the stadium plan from a referendum...

As the hearing began, former Minnesota Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek walked to the microphone accompanied by two Twins officials, who poured onto a table hundreds of cards signed by fans supporting a replacement for the 23-year-old Metrodome. "I love playing in there, but I hate watching in there as a fan," Hrbek told a packed hearing room.

But for every supporter, there was an equally opinionated opponent. "Why are you afraid of a referendum? Do you not trust us, the voters?" asked John Knight, a Minnetonka attorney. "I'm not some kind of radical here. I'm a Republican."

And finally, the effort that began well over a year ago to get tough on sex offenders is finally coming to a conclusion at the Capitol. But there are a few big wrinkles to iron out before it's done, as noted by MPR's Laura McCallum:

The Senate bill calls for open-ended sentences with the possibility of life in prison for the most dangerous sex offenders. That puts the DFL-controlled Senate at odds with the Republican-led House and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who support life in prison without the possibility of parole for the most violent offenders.

The sponsor of the Senate version, Minneapolis DFLer Jane Ranum, says the Senate approach gives prosecutors the tools they need to lock up the worst of the worst.

"The people who try these cases on a daily basis, the prosecutors tell us, 'give us flexibility, give us indeterminate life, but let us then figure out - because because no sex offender is identical to another sex offender,'" Ranum says.

The Senate voted 64-to-1 for the bill. The lone "no" vote, Republican Brian LeClair of Woodbury, says the bill doesn't go far enough to protect the public from sexual predators. He says the most violent offenders should never be given the opportunity to hurt a second victim.

Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, voted for the bill to move it along, but says indeterminate sentences aren't tough enough.

"Every time there's flexibility, there's an incident when somebody's let out and they commit a heinous crime, we come back here and try to make another fix. We've got to finally fix this system and the only way we're going to do that is life without release," according to Kleis.

And of course the unanswered question with that approach is how much are taxpayers willing to spend to lock people up forever?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:42 AM

May 3, 2005
Finger pointing

Gov. Pawlenty is hinting that if the Legislature goes into special session because there's no budget agreement, it would be the fault of Senate DFlers. The governor did an interview with Cathy Wurzer on Morning Edition. He said the Senate is taking too long to come up with its budget:

"They've signalled maybe it's an income tax increase, maybe it's gax tax increases, maybe it's beer tax increases. They'll tell us in a couple weeks. Well, in a couple weeks there'll only be a week left in the session, so it's the typical procrastination which leads to kind of the end of the session crunch. And that's unfortunate, but we're still going to try to get it done."

It's certainly true the Senate hasn't come up with a tax plan to pay for the added spending favored by the DFL majority. Senate tax committee chair Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, is working on a bill, but it seems to be a long way from done. But the half-baked nature of the budget doesn't seem to be a unicameral phenomenon. Witness this item from the Pioneer Press:

St. Paul and Minneapolis would lose $27 million a year in state aid under a tax bill proposed Monday by Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, the chairman of the Tax Committee in the Minnesota House.

Both cities would get legislative permission to impose a new city sales tax — if city voters approved — that would more than replace the lost state aid.

In St. Paul's case, the city would lose about $9 million in state aid, a 17 percent reduction. If voters granted approval for a new half-percent sales tax, the city would realize a $5.3 million net increase over its current state aid.

But some members of the Tax Committee and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said they knew nothing about the proposed reduction in state aid until Krinkie released the proposal Monday afternoon in preparation for three days of committee hearings on an omnibus tax bill.

Rep. Krinkie, it should be noted, helped torpedo the House budget bill last week and has also bottled up Gov. Pawlenty's casino plan. It's not like he seems to care much more than Pogemiller about keeping things on track just to meet deadlines. The tax committees may be the most entertaining places for political junkies to watch in the next week or so, as they are led by two of the most idiosyncratic members of the Minnesota Legislature.

One thing the House, Senate and governor appear ready to agree on is an increase in the state minimum wage. The House passed a bill Monday as noted by MPR's Tom Scheck:

The Minnesota House has been the major hurdle for a minimum wage hike for the last eight years. But this year, the measure passed overwhelmingly on an 84-50 vote.

Rep Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, was the chief backer of the increase. He says the hike will help the 49,000 Minnesotans who currently earn the state's minimum wage. He says it will also bump up wages for those who earn slightly more than minimum wage.

"Those are the people are really out there in the trenches doing things we appreciate whether they're changing the bedpans in our nursing homes or changing the linen in the hotels we're staying at our feeding our kids at the schools. Those are the people who will get this increase," he said.

Rukavina's bill would increase the minimum wage differently depending on the size of the employer. Larger employers who do more than $625,000 worth of business a year would have to increase their minimum wage to $6.15 an hour. That's one dollar more than current law.

Some opponents said the increase will cost jobs, and the House and Senate still have to work out their differences. But the governor told Morning Edition he can live with the House bill:

"That's a dollar increase, but it hasn't been increased in over six years, so if you add inflation and the fact that it may not increase for another year or two or more that seems like a reasonable increase to me."

So if (almost) everyone can agree on a minimum wage hike, what will it take for an agreement on the budget? At this point only one thing comes to mind. How about performance enhancing drugs for the Legislature?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:36 AM

May 2, 2005
Three weeks and counting

Three weeks to go in the legislative session, and the big fight is still over health care. KARE TV had a story about church leaders asking people on Sunday to sign post cards to legislative leaders urging them not to cut people off of MinnesotaCare. MPR's Lorna Benson has a story looking at some of the people who have already been cut from MinnesotaCare:

Kathy Auringer...lives in Eagle Lake, a small town in southern Minnesota just east of Mankato. Auringer was dumped from MinnesotaCare after it was scaled back two years ago because she exceeded the program's income limits. She briefly signed up for another state sponsored health plan called Minnesota Comprehensive. But she had to drop it after a few months because she couldn't afford it.

She now has no health coverage. Auringer says it was a hard decision to make because she's a cancer survivor.

"I'm really taking a chance. Yeah, there's no question about that," says Auringer. "I should really have my preventive visits and stuff, but I'm not even gonna do that."

Auringer is 58. She figures she probably will go without health insurance for seven more years until she can qualify for Medicare at age 65. Auringer doesn't understand the logic behind cuts to MinnesotaCare.

"I think it is just absolutely disgusting," she says. "These guys just sit there and cut and cut and cut. They have no clue what people are living in down here."

The Senate is expected to vote on its health budget bill Monday. It adds people to MinnesotaCare rather than cutting as Gov. Pawlenty and the House have proposed. The Senate is still working on a tax bill to raise the money to pay for its spending bills, but health care is one area that many think may drag negotiations beyond the May 23 deadline for adjournment.

Both Twin Cities papers had stories over the weekend about the looming deadline and the growing sense the session might head into OT again. There doesn't seem to be much of an impetus for the Senate DFL to cave anytime soon. But a lot can happen at the Capitol in three weeks. Some of the DFL rhetoric about the House health and human services budget was particularly sharp as noted by MPR's Tom Scheck:

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, says private health insurance is rising at a faster rate [than state health programs]. He says MinnesotaCare cuts and payment cuts to hospitals would be a "double whammy" on the state's hospitals. He says those cut will still end up in the hospital, but only when they're really sick. "I can tell you that if we eliminate 30,000 people from the rolls, they're not going to go away. They're still going to be living in the state of Minnesota, they'll still be going to the hospital and they'll still be treated," Huntley said.

Rep. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, called the package a "piece of crap."

"There's no reason for anybody to vote for this bill," she said near the end of a floor debate that lasted more than five-and-a-half hours. "It's setting Minnesota back. It's putting Minnesota into the race to the bottom."

The governor and House GOP leaders say the state has to rein in the double-digit growth of the health care budget.

Finally, if you haven't noticed yet it's sweeps month in the TV business. That's the time TV stations go all out to increase their ratings because ad rates will be based on how many people are watching this month. One of the more unusual news stories will be on KSTP TV. It follows one of the station's reporters as she deals with cancer. This is from the AP:

KSTP-TV reporter Kristin Stinar is fighting ovarian cancer, the station reported Sunday night.

The station said she was taking her fight public because ovarian cancer is elusive, hard-to-diagnose and deadly for far too many women.

Stinar, 36, the station's lead investigative reporter, noticed symptoms in February. She had a lack of appetite and her stomach was bloated.

"I just thought it was stress, or I wasn't eating properly, or not working out enough or something. I just brushed it off, I wish I hadn't," she said.

When the pain became too much, she went to a doctor who found a tumor 13 centimeters across, the size of a grapefruit, near her right ovary. Tests after surgery determined it was cancerous.

Just to keep you watching, Sunday's report did not give details about her prognosis or what stage the cancer was. For that you have to watch Monday. We certainly wish her the best, but shudder slightly to think what kind of stories this could result in during the next sweeps period. How much detail do we need to know about our anchorpeople's medical conditions?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:15 AM