June 2005 Archive

June 30, 2005
Deadline day

As unbelievable as it once seemed, just one year after the Legislature was roundly criticized for doing nothing, the state is now on the verge of a partial government shutdown. The cause of the shutdown? A relatively small $466 million shortfall on a $30 billion budget. Both sides are accusing the other of forcing the shutdown for political purposes. It's hard to believe anyone involved would be dumb enough to do that, because there aren't going to be any political winners out of this situation. One can only imagine the main negotiators will make things even worse for themselves as they try to blame each other for the shutdown.

The only bright spot seems to be that state parks may survive the shutdown. MPR's Laura McCallum has the latest from last night's negotiations:

Legislative leaders emerged from the governor's residence to report good news and bad news. First, the good news.

"I would say to all the families of Minnesota, continue your plans to go to state parks," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, a Democrat from Willmar.

He said leaders agreed to pass an agriculture and environment bill Thursday that would keep the parks open. The bad news is that they didn't agree on two other bills that have stymied leaders for months.

"Unresolved continues to be the health and human services, and ultimately the tax bill, the raising of the revenues," he said.

The lack of a deal on those major bills means a partial government shutdown is nearly certain, according to Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon. Sviggum accused Democrats of trying to force a government shutdown to make Gov. Tim Pawlenty look bad.

"There was no effort from the DFL to negotiate and cooperate in the best interests of the state. There was no effort," he said.

You see, that blame thing is already underway. Yesterday DFLers were saying Gov. Pawlenty was putting too many conditions on his proposal to increase cigarette taxes. And that parks bill could still be derailed by concerns over ATV use.

And for the first time since Sunday Gov. Pawlenty talked to reporters Wednesday. As noted in the Pioneer Press he said for the first time that he might support a "lights on" bill to extend the budget deadline:

He said he would agree to a temporary "continuing resolution" to keep government operating for a few days if he and legislative leaders have the "outline of a deal" by midnight today. "That's probably the best we can hope for," he said.

Even if they aren't close to a deal, he said, he would consider a bill to keep government operating for a brief and limited time. He said he opposes keeping government operating indefinitely without a deal because it "institutionalizes gridlock."

Sensing the political hurricane that will result from the shutdown, some lawmakers are trying to come up with their own deal. The Star Tribune talks about it:

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers gathered Wednesday evening to call for their own compromise solution. They included many veteran legislators and some in their first term.

On the revenue side, they suggested a $1 per-pack tobacco charge, getting more money by tightening the corporate tax code and dipping slightly into reserves. On the spending side, they recommended middle ground on health care spending and a bare-bones transportation package.

"We want the job done. The taxpayers want the job done and we'd all like to go home,'' said Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul.

About 20 legislators are behind that fix. It's unclear how they would get it done, but it seems like a good time for a revolution at the Capitol.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:35 AM

June 29, 2005

With two days to go until the partial government shutdown, there's some progress but still no deal. As it has for months the holdup comes down to how to pay for the services lawmakers believe Minnesotans are demanding. MPR's Michael Khoo has the latest:

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says the latest offer from his side provides historic increases for K-12 schools. He says it also meets most of the DFL-controlled Senate's concerns about preserving state-subsidized health care for low-income workers -- and actually re-instates protections lost in previous years of budget-balancing.

"We've put everything we can on the table, absolutely everything," he said. "I don't know an issue that has been raised by Democrats since the beginning of the session that we have not offered or taken care of. I don't know of an issue that exists."

Sviggum says he's shocked that Democrats haven't rushed to embrace the most recent GOP offer, funded in large part by a proposed 75-cents per pack cigarette tax first offered by Gov. Tim Pawlenty more than a month ago.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says he's encouraged by the spending for education and health care. And he says Democrats are willing to compromise by abandoning a proposed income tax hike for 42,000 of the state's highest-income households. In return, Johnson says he doesn't want to hear further mention of a Republican plan to install slot machines for a so-called "racino" at the Canterbury Park Racetrack in Shakopee.

"I would simply declare that the fourth tier of income tax is off the table and racino is off the table," he said. "Let's get over it. It's not part of these discussions any more."

The racino plan is a key component of the Republican offer, expected to raise $218 million over the next two years for a string of programs, including public transit, state aid payments for city services and a clean water initiative.

So if the racino is really out they have to take out $218 million of the spending goodies or find another $218 in other revenue, right? Can they figure that out in two days? After taking six weeks of overtime to get this far?

Highway rest stops are supposed to start closing today. Some of the nearly 16,000 state workers who will be laid off in the event of a shutdown met with reporters yesterday to lament their situation. MPR's Tom Scheck had that story:

Highway Helper Kevin Tucker said he won't be able to work on July 1. He says he's living paycheck to paycheck and any loss in pay will cause him financial problems. He says he and other state employees have not received a raise in three years, while out-of-pocket costs continue to climb.

"Everything is going up around us. I go to the gas station, it used to cost $25 to fill up, now it costs $45. All of these things is costing net profit and now you put us out of the streets for two weeks? It's just not fair," Tucker said.

Furloughed employees will have the chance to use vacation and comp time for the two weeks between July 1 and July 15.

Deepa de Alwis, who's an agriculture chemical adviser, was scheduled to take vacation this week. It would have been her first family vacation in more than four years. But she says the uncertainty of a shutdown forced her to keep working. De Alwis says her family is also cutting back on expenses in case the shutdown continues well into July.

"I made arrangements to cut down my costs so because of that I can make it, but it will be difficult. Pretty soon my health insurance will run out if it goes too long and that will be a major blow to me," she said.

The Star Tribune has put together an estimate of how much a shutdown would cost in dollars--$4.68 million each day:

A little more than half of the daily tab would be employee compensation and benefits to the 15,700 workers who were deemed unessential and who would not be working. About $1.8 million would be lost revenue from license charges and other fees not processed, including $60,000 a day in lost revenues from state parks. For the parks, much of that loss never would be recouped.

State officials estimate it would take more than six months of an extended shutdown before the state would realize any savings, and even then, the loss of state services would not be worth it.

So much for the 'shut it down and save some dough' crowd...which hasn't really been heard anyway.

Another big question no one has been asking is, what do all those reporters do when negotiators are meeting behind closed doors? MPR's Laura McCallum sent me this exclusive photo from outside the governor's residence yesterday.

They're calling it Camp Impasse. That's Brian Bakst from the AP on the left getting some of his summer reading done. The fellow behind the newspaper is a little harder to identify. We think he works for an obscure Minneapolis radio station, and I have to say he's been a little cranky over the past few weeks.

Maybe these comfy chairs will help everyone's disposition, but a deal to end the session would help more. And of course, keeping reporters happy is always the first priority.

But there they are: working hard for the people!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:27 AM

June 28, 2005
Shutdown coming

I said several weeks ago here that the deadline for a new state budget was July 1. Now it looks very likely that legislative leaders will push past that and shut down the government. Things got a little silly at the Capitol yesterday before negotiations started. The governor's office encouraged TV stations to photograph the state plane sitting empty on an airport runway to dramatize how DFL leaders were ignoring his call to meet at Camp Ripley. Never mind that the invitation was a stunt to begin with. When negotiations finally did get underway at the governor's residence (where they should have been from the start) not much happened. Here's what MPR's Tom Scheck wrote:

They exchanged budget offers well into the night, but said they're still at least $800 million apart on an overall budget deal.

Sen. Johnson says his latest proposal would no longer link an income tax increase for the state's wealthiest citizens to pay for increases in health care and education. Instead, he said the income tax hike would be used to pay for middle class tax cuts.

"We believe this is a very serious offer. It's a serious move toward the governor and the House. We are more than hopeful that the governor and the house will accept this proposal," he said.

Gov. Pawlenty and Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum were cool to the idea. They say any measure that increases income taxes is off the table since it would harm job creation. Sviggum supports a measure that would allow a state sponsored casino at Canterbury Park. Pawlenty has proposed cuts to state subsidized insurance and a 75 cent per pack cigarette tax increase to pay for funding increases for education.

Meanwhile the Senate is working on a plan to keep more of the government operating past July 1, as noted in the Pioneer Press:

The Senate Rules Committee on Monday sent a bill to the floor that would take care of some state agencies, including keeping state parks open. The measure would fund agriculture, natural resources and economic development at current levels for the next two years.

House and Senate negotiators were close to reaching consensus for funding the three departments, said Sen. Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples. If they were to complete the agreement Monday night, Johnson said, the full Senate would act on it today.

An aide to Sviggum said the speaker is open to passing such a bill if it does not spend more money than the House has already approved.

But Pawlenty has hinted he might veto a finance bill for those departments unless it overhauls the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, a 20-member panel of state legislators that doles out Minnesota State Lottery money to conservation, environmental and recreation projects.

So as non-profits, schools, health care providers, parks and state employees wonder how much they will be able to do after July 1 it's hard to see an overall agreement by Friday. We'll hear more from state employees today and see what happens to that "lights on" bill.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:29 AM

June 27, 2005
Camp Ripley calls

Another unproductive weekend of budget negotiations led Gov. Pawlenty on Sunday night to call for moving the negotiations north. North to Camp Ripley, that is. Why that would be any more effective now than it would have been at the end of the regular session is an open question, but the announcement did allow the governor to grab the upper hand on the most watched TV newscast night of the week and to get in the papers Monday morning. Here's how the Pioneer Press wrote it:

With fewer than 100 hours until Minnesota's first state government shutdown, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed Sunday night moving budget negotiations from the Capitol to the Camp Ripley military base north of Little Falls and staying until a deal is reached.

"The situation here at the state Capitol is ridiculous,'' the Republican governor said. "I'm as frustrated as I'm sure most Minnesotans are.''

But Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders immediately criticized the idea as unpractical. "It could create as many problems as it solves,'' said Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. "To have this college-of-cardinals approach will not go well with the public.''

Of course the stalled negotiations aren't playing too well with the public least with those members of the public who are paying attention. Minnesotans may have been sweating out the shutdown yesterday, but mostly they were just sweating and boating and swimming and doing what they usually do on a hot summer weekend.

Despite a newspaper story over the weekend that questioned whether many people will even notice the partial shutdown, clearly some will notice it more than others. The 16,000 state workers who face a layoff will certainly notice. MPR's Tom Scheck reports that many doctors and hospitals will also feel the impact:

{State human services commissioner Kevin]Goodno says his department is asking doctors, hospitals and other health care providers to continue treating patients on state health programs. He says the state will pay some critical care providers but others will be forced to wait until a budget deal is reached.

"We're asking them to continue to provide services on the hope that at some point that we will get a resolution to the budget process and they will eventually get paid."

The request puts some doctors in a precarious position since their bottom line may bottom out if a shutdown lasts several weeks. Don Jacobs is a trustee of the Minnesota Medical Association and CEO of Hennepin Faculty Associates at Hennepin County Medical Center. He says doctors and clinics who focus on treating the low income and the working poor will be faced with a cash flow crunch if a shutdown occurs.

"We have an ethical responsibility for the care of our patients and we will meet that obligation but there becomes a limit to the financial viability of practices, particularly when a very large portion of their practice revenues may come from those patients and the type of programs that are supported by the public money."

And here's the scoop of the week. The Republican leader sof the U.S. Senate is supporting the only Minnesota Republican candidate running for Senate. Yes, it's hard to believe but Sen. Bill Frist, R- Tenn., is supporting Mark Kennedy for Senate. Here's an item from MPR's Mark Zdechlik:

Frist spoke briefly with reporters prior to a private fundraiser appearance.

The Senate majority leader called Rep. Kennedy a "steadfast leader" and said Kennedy would make a good addition to the Senate.

"When we come in, it's not in any way to tell Minnesotans how to vote or really to get involved specifically in the race. It is more to reflect the importance from the national standpoint in having somebody like Mark on the floor of the U.S. Senate."

But that's not telling anyone how to vote. Got it?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:36 AM

June 24, 2005
Teeth in the laws?

I know I should be writing about the government shutdown, but can I get something off my chest first? Why do people in Minnesota feel the need to own lions and tigers? And not just one, but eight or nine? The latest story about this exercise in misguided pet ownership involves a 10 year old boy in critical condition. Here's the story from the St. Cloud Times:

Russell LaLa was in the intensive-care unit at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he was flown after the Wednesday night attack.

The animals that attacked the boy were euthanized about 1 p.m. Thursday, Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel said. Their remains will be tested for diseases that may be harmful to the boy.

LaLa, who will be a fifth-grader at Royalton Elementary School this fall, is a "sweet young man," neighbor Fred Taylor said.

"He's always with his dad. Where his dad was, there he was," Taylor said. "He's very special to me in many ways because he cares so much about his dad."

LaLa was with his father when he was attacked about 10:45 p.m. Wednesday at Best Buy Auto, three miles south of Little Falls.

LaLa and his father were visiting friend and Best Buy Auto owner Chuck Mock, who is the registered owner of 11 large cats tigers and lions and a bear, Wetzel said.

Well at least he's registered. The lion and tiger who attacked the boy have already been killed. The neighbors have been complaining about these animals for some time, but there was nothing authorities could do under the law. Maybe it's time for some new laws.

MPR's Erin Galbally did a story on the issue a few weeks ago and here's what she found:

[Mower County Sherif Terese] Amazi says a recent state law known as the Regulated Animal Statue has helped matters slightly. It requires exotic animal owners to register with the state board of animal health. It also restricts the importation of new exotic animals into the state. But as of right now, there's no list -- either state or federal -- that comprehensively details how many tigers there are in Minnesota.

Whatever happened to having a dog for a pet?

Now back to that government shutdown. Gov. Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson met yesterday, but they didn't report any progress. That was after a judge issued an order to continue critical services in the event of a shutdown. MPR's Laura McCallum has that story:

Ramsey County Chief Judge Gregg Johnson said in court that he would rather stay out of the budget fight, and he urged state leaders to reach agreement. But if they fail to do so, Johnson's order would ensure that state money continues to fund core services.

The order says that core functions include matters relating to the health and safety of Minnesota citizens. That includes education funding, public health services, welfare payments, and road construction projects. A list of services Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office deemed to be critical will help guide, but not stricly define, what functions continue.

Legislators who aren't directly involved in the negotiations are growing increasingly frustrated as are ordinary citizens who are watching from the outside. Rick Keimig of Marshall sent me this note:

I think that I have an idea on how to stop special sessions. Legislators get half of their salary midway through the session, and they only get the second half if they finish on time.

That might work. Then again, people might try to apply the same standard to journalists. That would mean you would hear a story on MPR about every weak idea I come up with. I'm pretty good at hitting deadlines, but I don't think you or I could live with that!

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:38 AM

June 23, 2005
Off to court

Eight days to go until a partial government shutdown, and the state goes to court to argue over what is and what isn't essential. All sides have apparently been so busy trying to decide this question they haven't been able to find time to negotiate. In yet another goofy development Gov. Pawlenty and Attorney general Mike Hatch will argue with each other in court over who has the right to represent the state. Here's how the Pioneer Press reports it:

Minnesota flirted with a shutdown in 2001 when the Legislature did not pass any spending bills by the end of June. Then-Ramsey County Chief Judge Lawrence Cohen gave the governor power to keep core functions going after a single court hearing. In the end, the Legislature agreed to a budget the next day.

Some say Johnson may make a similar ruling after the hearing today; others say his decision may take a bit longer.

That's in part because this year the attorney general's office and governor have filed separate petitions.

In his petition, Pawlenty argued he should be on equal footing with the attorney general in the court hearings. In 2001, the attorney general was the only petitioner and then-Gov. Jesse Ventura's office was consulted.

Maybe the judge should lock everyone in an un-air-conditioned room and keep them there until they come out with a deal. And while they're at it, he could have them resolve that extra $300 million problem caused by the Hutchinson Technology decision so we won't have to worry about another budget shortfall next year.

The Star Tribune has more about the unusual dual nature of the court arguments:

[U of M political science professor Larry] Jacobs likened the situation to a Vikings-Packers football game in which "Green Bay was told that the Vikings coach would be setting the rules."

Pawlenty on Wednesday said that he has no bone to pick with Hatch in submitting a separate petition, but that he merely wants "my voice at the table." Hatch has not openly challenged his decision, Pawlenty said

Indeed, Hatch said Wednesday that he will make no objection to Pawlenty as a dual petitioner.

But he added: "It's stupid; it doesn't make any sense; it's political. It's insulting to the court. But that's up to the governor."

Mind you, that is not an objection. And he said merely that it's stupid...not profoundly stupid.

If government ever gets back to business as usual here's an interesting one to ponder. Should metro Minnesotans and non-metro Minnesotans be more alike when it comes to their health? MPR's Lorna Benson had this item:

Rural residents are more likely to be overweight and less likely to wear seat-belts than their urban counterparts. That's according to a new Minnesota Department of Health report that shows some significant health disparities between rural and metro residents in the state.

When it comes to dental health, 46 percent of elderly rural residents have lost six or more teeth to decay and gum disease. Linda Norlander, with the Office of Rural Health and Primary Care, says the dental statistics are especially surprising.

"So we're talking a significant tooth loss as compared to 32 percent in urban elderly. And that really stood out for me, that there was such a significant difference."

The report doesn't address why tooth loss is greater in rural areas. But it did find that many elderly rural residents haven't visited a dentist in five or more years. There's also a significant dentist shortage in Greater Minnesota.

I'm not quite sure what that all means, but it's something to think about.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:11 AM

June 22, 2005

Just when you thought things were as screwed up as they possibly could be at the Capitol they got worse. That state Supreme Court decision from a couple weeks ago involving taxes Hutchinson Technology said it shouldn't have to pay will make Minnesota's budget problem significantly worse over the nest few years. MPR's Michael Khoo has some background:

Revenue commissioner Dan Salomone says that as a first response Minnesota should change its tax laws to stop the drain on future revenues.

"The Legislature and the governor need to focus on the prospective problem, change the law so we basically stop the bleeding, revenue loss," he said.

Salomone said such an amendment could wipe out a third of the ruling's fiscal impact. The remainder -- as much as $200 million -- would still be owed to companies as rebates on previous tax bills.

Lawmakers from both parties and both the House and Senate suggested that that liability can be spread out over several years and shouldn't necessarily be part of the current budget discussion. They say that, instead, they'll stick to the official state budget forecast prepared last February, well before the court ruled in the Hutchinson case. A new forecast that would take into account the court ruling isn't due until November.

OK, maybe all the details aren't known, but isn't it just that kind of avoidance that has led to these recurring shortfalls?

The Star Tribune has more on the story:

Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum discounted the severity of the problem, arguing that technically it's a problem for the 2006 Legislature and will be factored into the November 2005 budget forecast. "It's significant, but within the context of a $30 billion dollar [two-year] budget it's manageable," said Brian McClung, Pawlenty's spokesman.

"I think it's a fairly big hit for us," said Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison. "It's not going to make it any easier to resolve the issues" in front of the current Legislature, which has been in special session for almost a month.

DFLers expressed more alarm for the problem, which they blamed on Republican inaction in response to DFL warnings.

"This exacerbates the problem further," said Johnson, the DFL majority leader from Willmar, adding that it could be argued that it turns the overall budget deficit for 2006-07 to nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. Johnson and other DFLers contend that the decision vindicates DFLers in their long-standing efforts, led by Taxes Committee Chairman Larry Pogemiller, to toughen and clarify state laws to prevent corporations from sheltering income from foreign operations.

And as the budget problem appeared to get worse, there was more pressure from rank and file lawmakers on their leaders to get a deal done. The Pioneer Press had that story:

With Minnesota legislative negotiations at a near standstill and government officials planning for shutdown, there was little rank-and-file lawmakers could do to force the messy lawmaking process along.

So, they did little. On Tuesday, House Republicans held a "vigil" outside Senate Democratic leaders' state Capitol offices to pressure them to get the job done.

One by one, the Republicans sat in a cozy leather office chair in the hallway outside Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson's office. GOPers had filled out a schedule that would have a person in that chair every hour of the day including overnight for at least 24 hours.

"We are here to represent the people of Minnesota, and the people of Minnesota want us to finish," said Rep. Char Samuelson, R-New Brighton, as she began her three-hour shift Tuesday afternoon. Like others, she sat prepared to chat with any Democratic-Farmer-Laborite who happened by, but she also brought a sheaf of work to pass the time. She said Republicans might continue their "work-in" until a budget deal is done.

Well, the governor is in Washington Wednesday, so it might be a long night for those folks. There are no meetings scheduled at the Capitol, although Thursday there's a court hearing to decide what's an essential state service and what isn't. That's about all there is to look forward to.

And finally, who's to blame for the shutdown? According to a piece on the Star Tribune editorial page by first term Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, apparently it's the media:

Every night, news anchors offered up talk of "government shutdown" and a so-called do-nothing Legislature. And every day, another constituent sends another nasty e-mail about how stupid and worthless all legislators are and how we should all be thrown out of office for our idiocy. Repetition works.

It may not be the truth, but every day the media recklessly sell their woeful product, we lose more trust for our elected officials and the institutions they serve.

Remember, peace and productivity do not sell newspapers or garner ratings. Keep the public in a constant state of fear and loathing about our government, and the media moguls enjoy the windfall. We are enslaved to their redundant fault-finding criticism.

We are daily at risk of buying the gloom and doom that they are selling.

Don't be fooled.

My work as a state representative was for the most part done when the regular session ended. If you want to see what I did with my colleagues in the House, go to the House website and look it up. We got a ton of work done! I am proud of what we accomplished in the House.

As you consume the half-truths put forth by our media, please bear in mind that we are public servants and, contrary to what you hear on the news, most of us work our tails off. Our families make significant sacrifices to support us.

Why can't they just report some GOOD news for a change?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:34 AM

June 21, 2005
Holding pattern

Twelve days and counting until the government shutdown. There are still no signs of progress at the Capitol. About the only news out of state government is a report from state Auditor Patricia Anderson that confirms schools' expenses are going up. Here's the Pioneer Press story:

Skyrocketing special education and staff health insurance costs are driving school expenses upward even as fewer students enroll, a state auditor's report released Monday found.

Schools are now spending about 18 percent more than they did during the 1999-2000 year, according to the auditor's analysis of school data during the past five years. The last such analysis was completed for the 2001-02 school year.

Most funding still comes from the state, but as legislative spending fell off from 2002-03 to 2003-04, many districts looked to local taxpayers to make up the difference. Local funding grew 18.2 percent statewide in that year.

Although salaries have jumped in some east metro districts, statewide they've stayed nearly even with inflation.

As for those negotiations, a meeting of the House Rules Committee to consider a bill that would have kept state parks open was cancelled Monday. MPR's Michael Khoo says Speaker Steve Sviggum is pessimistic:

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum is inviting Minnesotans to stop by his office Tuesday to offer their thoughts on the state's ongoing budget impasse.

The gridlock threatens to shut down parts of state government if an agreement isn't in place by the end of the month. Sviggum and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are at odds with the DFL-run Senate over how to fund public schools and state-subsidized health care.

Sviggum says that a shutdown is looking more likely with each passing day.

"It would mean that we would have brought gridlock to a position of shutting down state government. We would obviously have failed at bringing together, you know, Minnesota's budget. And right now, I think it's probably more a reality than not."

Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch will be in court later this week seeking an order to keep critical services going even if a final budget isn't complete.

Even with a court order, a shutdown would likely close state parks and highway rest areas. The state would also stop issuing new drivers licenses and other permits.

As state lawmakers struggle to get the job done, the Star Tribune reports that Eleanor Mondale is engaged in a different kind of struggle:

The daughter of former Vice President Walter Mondale confirmed Monday morning that she is suffering from the life-threatening disease, less than a week after her marriage to local rock star Chan Poling and just a few hours before her first session of radiation and chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

"It's bad but not that bad," she said from her farmhouse in Prior Lake. "I've got a really good chance to beat it."

Mondale, 45, said her vision had bothered her in recent months, but she didn't believe there was anything seriously wrong until a camping trip May 16.

Around 4 a.m., she awoke with the first seizure she ever had, followed by another 10 minutes later. There was no cell-phone service in the area, so she and her friend had to wait until the sun rose so they could hike out and call for help.

Doctors soon determined that Mondale had two tumors, both in her frontal lobe, and on May 31 they were found to be cancerous.

Not much else to say today. Let's hope for better news tomorrow.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:22 AM

June 17, 2005
Bush is back

Despite all those visits during the campaign last year, President Bush lost Minnesota. But he's coming back anyway. He'll be in Maple Grove Friday to talk about Medicare, but of course he'll also probably hit on a number of other topics. Bush's poll numbers, both nationally and in Minnesota, have been sagging. His Social Security plan seems to be foundering, the insurgency continues in Iraq, and gas prices are high. What's a president to do? Hold a "town hall" forum. MPR's Mark Zdechlik has a look at the president's strategy and what the critics say:

Political analysts say Bush is using town hall forums so much because he comes across best in informal settings. Critics complain the forums offer no public policy debate and instead are crafted exclusively promote Bush proposals.

"I think it's so typical of the Republican Party to close out everybody they don't agree with," says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Dean says the Bush administration's policy of shutting out opposition in his appearances is emblematic of what he says is an administration that has little respect for people who disagree with the president.

"There's nothing wrong with a town meeting. I think they're terrific," says Dean. "I think the problem is that these meetings that the president's having really aren't town meetings. They're really rallies with the faithful, and I don't think that gets you much in the way of policy."

The Star Tribune looks at the Medicare prescription drug benefit:

About 41 million Medicare recipients, more than 675,000 in Minnesota, qualify for the drug plan, the first major expansion of the health program since it was broadened to cover people with disabilities.

But counselors and advocates in Minnesota say they expect widespread confusion about the program. And for some, the letters that are being mailed to seniors are just adding to the uncertainty.

"An 87-year-old lady I work with got her [Social Security] letter. She was baffled and just handed it to me," said social worker Barb Lopata with Senior Community Services in Minnetonka. "I could help her fill out the application, but what about all the people without somebody to help?"

For many seniors without an advocate, "there will be a lot of baffled people," predicted Janine Stiles, who coordinates a network of nonprofit agencies in Minnesota that has received federal funding to advise Medicare recipients.

And MPR's Lorna Benson takes a look at another part of the federal health care equation, Medicaid.

President Bush wants to cut billions of dollars from Medicaid, the health benefit program for low income and disabled people. He says it's time to rein in what has become an enormously expensive program. Medicaid spending tops more than $300 billion a year. That's up about 50 percent in the past five years.

The growth isn't expected to slow down. The Congressional Budget Office says unless Medicaid spending rates are changed, the program will cost nearly $600 billion by 2012.

Initially, Bush proposed cutting $60 billion over 10 years. But that proposal met with fierce opposition from states and health care activists. Congress eventually reduced the president's proposed cuts to $10 billion over five years.

Still, a $10 billion cut is a substantial one that is likely to affect most recipients in most states, including Minnesota. In Minneapolis, officials at Hennepin County Medical Center fear they might bear the brunt of any cuts. HCMC is a public safety net hospital that serves a disproportionate number of people on Medicaid.

So in other words the federal cuts could make this year's fight over health care at the state Capitol look like just the opening round.

And what about things at the Capitol? Senate Republicans offered what they said was a new plan to end the special session. Bottom line--not all that new, and special session continues. Here's the Pioneer Press take:

Senate Republicans on Thursday offered a split-the-difference deal that would rely on an expectation of growing tax collections and a new state-operated casino to end a budget impasse that threatens to shut down Minnesota state government July 1.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said the offer would boost spending by about $774 million over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget.

But state economist Tom Stinson said a key assumption in the plan an expectation that revenue growth the state realized between last summer and this February would be repeated is flawed. Stinson said that growth already was included in a February revenue forecast, and the Republicans are double-counting it in their budget plan.

Day asked Pawlenty in May to order a new revenue forecast in hopes it would show that an improving economy would allow the state to spend more over the next two years than now appears affordable without a tax increase. Pawlenty has largely ignored the request.

And support for the racino hasn't exactly taken off either. So get ready for week five of the special session starting Monday as the clock keeps ticking toward a shutdown. And have a good weekend.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:45 AM

June 16, 2005
More shutdown plans

No driver's licenses, no state parks, and lots of state workers without jobs. That's what the governor says will happen if there's no budget deal by July 1. The governor announced the shutdown plans Wednesday and accused DFLers of forcing a shutdown as a political strategy. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

Pawlenty said Senate leaders are attempting to force a shutdown for political advantage.

"And so I think they believe that a shutdown will cause a sense of cynical reaction that will benefit them. And I hope the public sees through that and sends our friends in the Senate Democrats a strong message," he said.

But it appears that neither side is getting the message. At an earlier meeting of top lawmakers from both parties, the two sides mainly argued in circles, repeating familiar criticisms and making little forward progress.

But DFL leaders say the talk of shutdown is premature and unnecessary. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ann Rest of New Hope says if a final deal isn't struck by July 1, lawmakers and the governor ought to approve a temporary funding bill that keeps the state more or less at current funding levels. That way, she says, the debate can continue without being rushed by the threat of a shutdown.

"We believe that that's a fairly simple, straightfoward approach to our dilemma at this point. We don't believe anything needs to be decided in a panic. And we can act in a -- continue to act -- in a very deliberative way as we solve our budget dilemmas," she said.

But Pawlenty is opposed to current funding levels, saying they're too low for K-12 schools and too high for health and human services. He said he would accept a temporary funding measure for state parks --and state parks only.

Just about any politician wouldm look good compared to the ones running Minnesota right now, and it just so happens President Bush will visit Maple Grove Friday. Brian Bakst of the Associated Press suggests Bush is looking to buck up his sagging poll numbers:

President Bush, his image ailing in a state he paid plenty of attention to in last year's campaign, could be in search of a political pick-me-up when he touches down in Minnesota to talk up his Medicare plan Friday.

He's making a beeline to solid GOP territory, suburban Maple Grove, for the invitation-only forum. The city and its smaller neighbors gave him 59 percent of their votes in 2004, compared with the roughly 48 percent he got in Minnesota as a whole.

A May poll by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis had Bush's approval rating in Minnesota at 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency.

"The president has got to mend fences with swing states like Minnesota," said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, adding, "He's trying buck up the party. ... He's firing up his loyalists."

I guess that's better than firing up your opponents.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:33 AM

June 15, 2005
Shutdown plans

Gov. Pawlenty and members of his administration are scheduled to meet with reporters today to talk about plans to shut down the government. The shutdown, or partial shutdown, will happen if the governor and legislators don't reach a deal on a new state budget by July 1. At least right now there's no indication they're making any progress toward a deal. And Pawlenty seems to be pleasing no one. The Star Tribune has a story about former allies launching an ad attack against him:

The Americans for Tax Reform, a national anti-tax organization whose approval is considered critical to conservative politicians with an eye toward higher office, has begun a statewide televised advertising campaign criticizing Gov. Tim Pawlenty for his proposed cigarette revenue increase.

The 30-second spot is to run statewide for seven days. It focuses on Pawlenty's proposal to raise $383 million by establishing what he calls a 75-cent-a pack health impact fee. Within the state, the fee has been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike as a euphemism for a tax increase.

The ad opens with a group of ducks walking in a puddle and asks the question: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you wouldn't call it a horse, would you?"

The narrator then says: "Despite the governor's clever wording, his fee is nothing more than a $380 million tax increase."

The group's president Grover Norquist tells reporter Mark Brunswick the ads aren't designed to criticize Pawlenty, but to reinforce the no tax position. Hey, if it looks like a duck...

And of course liberals who actually support a tax increase are also ripping Pawlenty for proposing...a tax increase.

One of this column's readers, Patrick Murphy, sent me this:

As long as we are planning to shut down the government come 1 July, 2005, how about we just move right ahead and have a special election to see exactly how popular this governor is at that point in time? I submit that Gov. Pawlenty, whom I did vote for in FY 2002 or whenever he last faced the voters would find himself shutdown as well.

Leadership means that one must negotiate, call a tax a tax, and get things done. O, for the days of Arnie Carlson and Elmer Anderson! Heck, any of the Anderson's, just name one! I'd vote for him as long as he got things done in St. Paul in a rational bi-partisan fashion. I think the Republican Party of Minnesota, which I use to endorse because it was truly an Independent-Republican Party, will find that the next Senator from Minnesota will be a DFL candidate, and not a Republican, come FY 2006. Just a humble prediction given the current atmosphere in Saint Paul and environs.

It wasn't an Anderson but a Tinklenberg who announced a campaign yesterday. Elwyn Tinklenberg to be exact, and he's not running for Senate. MPR's Tom Scheck has the story:

Former Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg is the first DFLer to formally announce his candidacy for Minnesota's 6th Congressional District. The seat is open because Republican incumbent Mark Kennedy is running for the U.S. Senate. Tinklenberg says he wants to bring a real world practicality to Congress. While Tinklenberg faces competition from only one other DFLer, there are five Republicans who have announced plans to run for the seat.

Tinklenberg made his announcement at the National Sports Center in Blaine. Tinklenberg, who served as mayor of Blaine, was a key player in getting the facility built in the 1980s. He touted his work to get the light rail line up and running as transportation commissioner under Jesse Ventura.

Tinklenberg, a former Lutheran minister, says DFLers should not shy away from talking about faith and moral values. His announcement speech focused on restoring faith in government and ending the divisive bickering in Washington.

"We are deciding in this race whether we want to send another partisan to a Congress that is already choking on them, or if we want to take a new direction. A direction of progress and reasonableness and accomplishment," he said.

Gosh, he could be talking about the Legislature.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:54 AM

June 14, 2005
Government gridlock

Is it the Washington Monument scenario or would a state government shutdown really mean gridlock on the highways? The Washington Monument scenario is the threat to close popular tourist attractions first whenever there's a threatened cut in federal funding. The theory is that policy makers will be so scared of offending taxpayers that they'll back off from really shutting things down. Now witness what was said by the state transportation commissioner (who also happens to be the Lt. Governor) at a meeting of the Senate Transportation Committee Monday. This is the Star Tribune account:

New drivers wouldn't be able to get a Minnesota license, and 175 major highway construction projects could be suspended. Thousands of employees could be laid off.

Those were some of the warnings Monday from Minnesota's Public Safety and Transportation commissioners about the potential impact of a partial state agency shutdown. Service cuts could occur after June 30, the end of the state's fiscal year, should the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty fail to agree on how to fund government.

Layoffs would likely leave no one to tend the Stillwater lift bridge, which links that city to Wisconsin across the St. Croix River. The lift bridge "would have to be left in the up position" so that the river would be navigable to large boats, said Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau. That would force the more than 12,000 vehicles that use the bridge daily to find another route.

There's no reason to think these things won't happen in the event of a shutdown. And taxpayers should be concerned about the Legislature and governor's ability to get a deal done. Did the DFL Senate Majority Leader leave an opening on Monday's Midday program? Here's an item pulled by MPR's Laura McCallum:

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar said on MPR's Midday program that if Pawlenty proposed a dollar a pack increase, Democrats would support it.

"One dollar per pack of cigarettes for two years raises $560 million. That would take us a long way for these budget discussions," he said.

Johnson said Minnesota's current cigarette tax of 48 cents a pack is ranked 38th among the states. He says raising the amount would reduce smoking.

Gov. Pawlenty has said he may soon pull his health impact fee off the table if the two sides are no closer.

Of course GOP activists said over the weekend they were upset with Pawlenty for proposing any tax increase, and they showed their displeasure by kicking party chair Ron Eibensteiner out of his job. What would they think if the governor upped the increase from 75 cents to $1?

In any case Johnson is gone for the next couple of days on military duty, so the clock keeps ticking.

One political item to note. Former state transportation commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg announces today he's running for the 6th District congressional seat as a Democrat. A number of Republicans are already in the race. Former Ventura spokesman John Wodele is working on Tinklenberg's campaign. He's also working on Senate candidate Kelly Doran's behalf.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:38 AM

June 13, 2005
Tough crowds

The Hatch sisters are free, and the state Republican Party has a new chair; but there's still no deal at the Capitol. Let's catch up a little on the weekend, starting with the changes at the GOP. The party's central committee dumped long-time chair Ron Eibensteiner and elevated another long-time party officer, Ron Carey, to the top job. How much did the decision have to do with Gov. Pawlenty? MPR's Tom Scheck had the story:

Bill Cooper, a former party chair himself, took shots at both Eibensteiner and Pawlenty for not holding true to party principals.

"We don't need any more gambling in Minnesota," Cooper said. "Two thirds of personal bankruptcies in this state are caused by gambling. They got day care centers. We don't need any more taxes. Income taxes are rising at over 15 percent in Minnesota. What's happened to your property tax assessments? Mine went up 16 and a half percent. We don't need any more taxes. We don't need any more fees."

While Carey and other party leaders were quick to say that they're behind Pawlenty 100 percent, it's clear some delegates aren't happy with some of the governor's recent political decisions. Pawlenty has backed the NorthStar commuter rail line and has proposed a 75-cent-a-pack cigarette tax increase to solve the stalemate over the state budget.

If you think Eibensteiner had a hard time, what about the superintendent of the Minneapolis schools? The Star Tribune has that story:

Thandiwe Peebles' tumultuous first year as Minneapolis schools chief climaxes in a meeting today with dissatisfied school board members who say her future is up in the air.

Board members say that they are considering one option that would give Peebles a short period -- perhaps 45 days -- to address shortcomings defined by the board.

"I think there are some serious concerns that can't be put off any longer," Board Member Colleen Moriarty said Sunday. "This is the time when we should address them."

Asked if the board's potential actions could include termination of Peebles, Moriarty responded: "It could be." But she said the board had not consulted its legal advisers about that option.

In her first year on the job, Peebles has alienated some parents, teachers and principals with what they describe as a intimidating top-down style. But she has also taken control of the worst-scoring schools, and the first set of test results to be released for her watch showed marked improvement in basic-skills tests for eighth-graders.

The Pioneer Press has a (front page!) look at some bills that passed during the regular session:

They have kept the hot tubs gurgling on houseboats, preserved the right of future farmers to sleep near their prize heifers and put motorized scooters on the local bike path.

And you thought the Minnesota Legislature had a bad year.

It's true the House, Senate and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have gone into overtime because they can't agree on the state budget. But they have signed off on dozens of little-noticed bills that somebody, somewhere, cares about desperately.

Somebody, somewhere, but not here.

The Associated Press has a profile of Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis. It gets behind some of the reasons she makes her opponents so angry and her supporters so happy:

"She's willing to spend every penny made in Minnesota to make sure everyone's taken care of," said Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, who leads health care negotiations for the Republican-controlled House. "In an area that spends mega-billions of dollars, not facing the reality of having to bring the growth down is amazing to me."

For such a formidable negotiator, Berglin doesn't look the part. She looks more like a gray-haired aunt who would invite you for Sunday dinner and show you her latest quilts (in fact, she is a quilter). She sits quietly during hearings, sipping a can of Red Raspberry Diet Rite, while others drone on about health programs.

Then, like a crocodile, Berglin attacks, using her encyclopedic knowledge of health and welfare policy to swallow the opposition.

"I'm glad I'm not negotiating against her," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the House minority's lead Democrat on health care. "She understands the budget, which is extremely complicated in health and human services, better than any legislator I know."

Maybe if we sent a case of Red Raspberry Diet Rite to everyone at the Capitol they could get a deal done.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:25 AM

June 10, 2005
Back to square one

I had a feeling this big DFL offer was being overhyped. It turned out to be less than promised, and the stalemate goes on at the Capitol. According to Gov. Pawlenty and the Republicans the DFL offer was less than half a loaf. They've accepted a 55 cent per pack cigarette tax but want the money dedicated to health care. And they're sticking by their plan to raise income taxes on the state's top earners. MPR's Laura McCallum has the story:

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says Democrats want first to resolve the issue of health care. "The health care bill is extremely important, that we get the MinnesotaCare issue resolved, and we know full well that people will then come together on education. We know that," he said.

Johnson says under the DFL proposal no Minnesotans would be cut from MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health insurance program for the working poor. Under Republican budget proposals, single adults with no children would be eliminated from the program.

To pay for state-subsidized health care, Johnson says Democrats are willing to accept a cigarette tax increase. The idea was first proposed by Gov. Pawlenty three weeks ago. Pawlenty proposed a 75-cent a pack "health impact fee." Proceeds would go to state health care programs and free up some money for education.

DFL leaders say they'll support a 55-cent increase, and they're still calling for higher income taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans.

Gov. Pawlenty, who has repeatedly said he won't support an income tax hike, called the DFL offer "deeply disappointing."

"It is not a compromise to propose the highest taxes in the nation, and a grotesque tax increase to fund a health and human services budget that is already out of control and unsustainable," he said.

The Star Tribune story talks a little about strategy:

Republicans contend that the DFL strategy is intended to force a situation where more K-12 spending, which both parties want, is contingent on either the proposed income-tax increase or a closing of corporate "loopholes."

"It's nakedly obvious that they [DFLers] want to pit increased taxes against the needs of children," Pawlenty said. "That's irresponsible ...We weren't born yesterday."

But Johnson said his party's polling shows that their approach is popular with voters. "God and the stars are with us on this," he said.

"The governor has no high ground on taxes," Entenza said just before entering the talks with Pawlenty and the GOP leaders. By proposing the cigarette fee and $139 million of local property taxes, he said, "virtually every Minnesotan would be touched by the governor's tax increases."

Those corporate loopholes referenced above could become even more important in coming days. Patrick Condon of the Associated Press has this item:

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Hutchinson computer company that is trying to avoid paying taxes on income generated by foreign subsidiaries. In October, those taxes were estimated at $117 million, but State Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison said she's not sure if that figure is still accurate. The Department of Revenue had tried to deny certain exemptions to Hutchinson Technology for taxes it paid from 1994 to 1999.

The court's ruling clears the way not only for Hutchinson Technology to collect on those exemptions, but is likely to have broader tax implications for Minnesota companies with foreign subsidiaries.

The issues in the ruling center on whether state-based companies with foreign subsidiaries can be allowed to take advantage of tax exemptions granted under federal tax law.

Stay tuned for more on what that decision could mean for the overall state budget. MPR's Michael Khoo did some excellent reporting last year on the foreign subsidiaries issue.

Given that it's Friday, one more check in on the Hatch daughters seems appropriate. This is from the AP:

Officer Jeffrey Phillips testified Thursday that a security guard flagged him down and said some women were causing a disturbance outside the club. He said Elizabeth Hatch refused his requests to leave the scene, yelled profanities and slapped him.

Phillips said he wrestled her to the ground, handcuffed one of her wrists and then hit her in the head with his open hand to distract her so he could put on the other cuff.

"There was just no time to calm the situation down and ask what the problem was," Phillips said.

Elizabeth Hatch also took the stand Thursday, saying a police officer attacked her after she was thrown out of the bar for complaining that a customer allegedly groped a waitress.

Prosecutors also have alleged that Anne Hatch kicked out a squad car window after police placed her in the back seat.

I guess we'll have to see if the verdict on this case comes in before the verdict in the Michael Jackson case. At least there's no jury in Chicago.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:45 AM

June 9, 2005
Roof or no roof?

It's not often there are two contradictory stories in the Twin Cities dailies, but it happened Thursday. The stories involve whether a new Twins ballpark (which is still little more than a gleam in supporters' eyes) should have a roof. The Pioneer Press put its story on the front page. In it Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, says he'll offer an amendment to the (as yet unintroduced) stadium bill to include a retractable roof at a cost of about $115 million:

"If they want to put the roof on, and if it gets the votes, we're certainly not opposed to it,'' Twins pointman Jerry Bell said.

Tax-increment financing is used widely, but controversially. Supporters view it as a way to spur new development, while opponents see it as lost public funds.

In the case of the ballpark, the roof would be financed initially through bonds and then paid back by new sales and income tax revenue that exceeds what was made at the Metrodome.

It's a risky venture. The plan counts on a speculated revenue stream. If that falls short, the Twins would have to make up the difference.

"We'd be inclined to do it, but we'd need to know the specifics,'' Bell said.

Now there's plenty of controversy about a roof and how to pay for it which is on top of the baseline controversy over the stadium itself. But here's where it gets really confusing. The Star Tribune has a story about how the Twins are satisfied with a roof-free ballpark:

While there's widespread agreement that the price tag would be too high to build a retractable roof now, there has been off-and-on talk about building a roof-ready stadium so that a retractable roof could be added later. That would include additional steel supports and a track on which the roof would run.

However, the Twins want neither a retractable roof nor a roof-ready stadium. Their construction consultants say it would be impractical to build it later, and Hennepin County officials, who voted to foot much of the bill on a new stadium through a countywide sales tax, have no interest in paying for a roof.

"We've come to grips with an open-air stadium," said Jerry Bell, president of Twins Sports Inc., the team's parent company, in an interview this week. "It was very difficult for us to do it. We have been trying to get a retractable roof for nine years and we came close but we never really got it, and the main reason is that the state won't put any money into the deal."

What are news consumers like you and me supposed to make of these stories? I can only speculate. One: The Star Tribune story was probably the result of a couple days work while the Pioneer Press story was a quick turn-around same day story. Two: Jerry Bell didn't feel compelled to call back the Star Tribune reporter when he heard about Solberg's plan. And three, and most importantly, if the Twins say they don't need a roof Solberg's amendment is going nowhere. If a stadium bill passes, get ready for rainouts, snowouts, hailouts and any other kind of outs you can think of.

Back to the main event at the Capitol. DFLers are supposed to make their big counter-offer on the budget today. MPR's Tom Scheck has a look at some of the real world effects of the budget indecision:

Julie Steberg, 45, is watching the debate over the state budget very closely. The Zumbrota resident is a stay-at-home mom with four children. Four years ago, Steberg was pregnant with triplets. Doctors ordered bedrest for Steberg, but she still delivered 10 weeks early. Steberg eventually lost her job when caring for the triplets became a full-time responsibility. Steberg and her husband, who's a farmer, enrolled in MinnesotaCare, a state-subsidized program for the working poor.

"I always thought that this would be a stopgap. I always thought that I would have my children, get them into school and then go back into the business field. But most employers now are not even offering health insurance," she says.

Steberg says her kids are mostly healthy, give or take the usual everyday bumps and bruises. Under the proposed budget, her kids will still be covered but Steberg and her husband may lose their coverage. Since budget talks are still in limbo, Steberg says she's not sure if she'll have health coverage in three weeks.

"I don't know how you prepare," she says. "There isn't enough in the budget already to put money aside for a possible health care premium. Some health care premiums are $600, $700, $800 a month. There's months we don't make that amount of money," she says.

I wonder if the jobs at the new stadium will come with health insurance.

We couldn't leave today without checking in on the trial of the Hatch daughters. This is from the Associated Press story:

CHICAGO (AP) - Prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on little as the daughters of Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch went on trial Wednesday on charges stemming from a scuffle outside a Chicago nightclub last year.

Anne Hatch, 22, and her sister Elizabeth Bell Hatch, 23, screamed, attacked police and tried to get special treatment, prosecutors alleged during opening statements. Defense attorneys, however, denied the sisters tried to benefit from their father's position and claimed officers used excessive force against the two.

"Not everyone was on their best behavior that morning. ... But no crimes were committed," defense attorney Cynthia Giacchetti said.

The Hatches were charged with misdemeanor counts of battery, resisting arrest and criminal damage to a vehicle. Elizabeth Hatch allegedly slapped an officer on the face causing his glasses to fly off, and Anne Hatch allegedly kicked out a squad car window after police placed her in the back seat, according to testimony Wednesday.

The testimony continues today.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:32 AM

June 8, 2005
Close to a deal?

DFLers say they're ready to move. So why don't they just do it? Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says he'll make an offer to end the special session. But not until Thursday. Remember, that's more than two and a half weeks after the end of the regular session when, of course, these closing offers should have been made. Maybe that's why I'm skeptical. Here's the story from the Pioneer Press:

Senate and House Democratic-Farmer-Labor leaders say they will try to break the budget logjam at the Capitol on Thursday by putting a "significant" new offer on the bargaining table.

After a second day of closed-door negotiations in the governor's office Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, announced they would propose a revised budget package to address the three main issues in dispute: how much to spend on health care and K-12 education, and how to raise the revenue to pay for those programs.

"Progress is being made," Johnson said. "I think we can do it."

While the DFLers now are apparently ready to accept Pawlwenty's cigarette tax, Entenza says an income tax increase is still on the table. That's something Pawlenty has said he won't accept (he even called it "profoundly stupid"). Anyway, House Speaker Steve Sviggum says if there isn't a deal by the end of the week, he may seek a 10- day cooling-off period that would bring things closer to the July 1 shutdown date.

In other words, there's still a big game of Texas hold-em going on at the Capitol.

The Star Tribune has a story looking at internal challenges to state GOP chair Ron Eibensteiner:

Minnesota's Republican Party Chairman Ron Eibensteiner faces a surprisingly strong and heated challenge this weekend in his bid for reelection to an unprecedented fourth term. The fracas appears to reflect frustration by some in the party with Gov. Tim Pawlenty as well as with his longtime ally.

Eibensteiner, a venture capitalist who has presided over net Republican gains through three election cycles, is being accused by two opponents of betraying the party's principles by at least indirectly endorsing Pawlenty's proposal for expanding gambling. They also say he failed to raise enough campaign money or didn't provide key services to candidates, which resulted in losing ground to DFLers in the 2004 presidential and state House elections. And they complain that he has embarrassed the party with his legal troubles.

The critique came in numerous mailings to Central Committee members by candidates Bill Pulkrabek, a Washington County commissioner and real estate agent, and Ron Carey, secretary-treasurer of the party and a financial software company executive.

MPR did a couple of stories a few months ago about conservative dissatisfaction with Gov. Pawlenty over the gambling issue. If Eibensteiner doesn't survive this challenge this weekend it's the first sign that the push for casino gambling has seriously split the party.

How reponsible should a politician be held for the actions of his adult children? That's a question Attorney General Mike Hatch may be pondering as his daughters go on trial in Chicago. Here's more from the Strib:

Anne Hatch, 22, and Elizabeth Hatch, 23, were arrested after an early hours scuffle with police outside the Crobar club on Chicago's Near North Side where they had been celebrating Anne Hatch's birthday in March 2004.

Police allege that after the two were removed from the club, Elizabeth Hatch slapped an officer with an open hand and knocked his glasses off. Police said Anne Hatch wrestled with another officer and scratched his face and later broke a police car window.

Each woman faces misdemeanor counts of resisting a peace officer, simple battery and criminal damage to property or a vehicle.

The women were treated at a Chicago hospital for injuries they received, which included black eyes, cuts and bruises and a fractured wrist, a Hatch spokesperson has said. Mike Hatch said after the incident that his daughters were devastated and wanted to be accountable for their mistakes but that they denied having assaulted the officers.

They briefly planned to pursue a complaint of excessive force by the arresting officers, but dropped it a few days after the incident.

"It's more important to have these kids taken care of," Mike Hatch said at the time, adding: "my daughters were having a bad day."

They may have another one today.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:25 AM

June 7, 2005
Private progress

Is it a coincidence that legislative leaders report some progress in talks now that the meetings are private? Probably not. And it's debatable just how much progress was made. But they are talking. Here's the Pioneer Press story:

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said the group made "some minor progress" toward finding common ground on taxes and spending.

"Today was a turning point toward getting serious," said House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.

The meeting in the governor's office was the first bargaining session in which Entenza and Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, participated.

That was an acknowledgement that any budget compromise will require Democratic votes in the Republican-controlled House and GOP votes in the DFL-run Senate, said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

All the leaders said they want to wrap up the budget as soon as possible, but they would not predict when that would be.

The cigarette tax, a racino, and property tax increases are all part of the talks. And as the talks continue there is a deal to report. A deal between the administration and state employees about how to go about shutting down the government if lawmakers don't pass a budget. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

As many as 16,000 public employees could be affected if the state goes into a partial government shutdown next month. For the first two weeks of July, employees with accrued vacation or compensation time can draw down those balances to keep the paychecks coming. But after that period expires on July 15th, the layoff notices would start to flow.

Eliot Seide, who heads the state's largest public employees union, says letting workers temporarily rely on vacation and comp time offers some limited relief. But he says workers would much prefer that Gov. Pawlenty and the Legislature bridge their differences and approve a budget. Seide says the average worker he represents makes about $35,000 a year.

"They live paycheck to paycheck. You know, this is about rent; this is about health care; this is about taking care of their children or their parents. There's not a lot of margin of error here."

Seide notes that workers who don't have sufficient vacation or comp time balances could see their paychecks run out immediately. Employee Relations Commissioner Cal Ludeman represented the state in its negotiations with the unions. He says even the two-week grace period represents a sacrifice, since it requires state workers to draw down their vacation benefits to get paid.

"Actually, there is pain being incurred on July 1. I mean, that employees can use some comp or vacation accrual time for a paycheck still means they are losing in this proposition," he said.

Far away from the Capitol in Albert Lea the shoplifting case against the mayor has been resolved. The Associated Press has the story:

Theft charges filed against Mayor Jean Eaton will be dropped if she completes an adult diversion program, Eaton and Olmsted County prosecutors said Monday.

Eaton has been accepted into the program, in which she would pay restitution and possibly complete community service in exchange for the felony theft charges being dropped.

Eaton was accused of stealing hundreds of dollars worth of clothing from Marshall Field's stores in Rochester, Edina and St. Cloud in an alleged clothing swap scam. She claimed that police acted illegally when they executed a search warrant in which evidence used to support the charges was gathered.

"I deeply regret the attention and distraction my personal situation has caused," the mayor said in a prepared statement.

I can't quite tell from that whether or not she's admitting she did anything wrong.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:22 AM

June 6, 2005
Close the door

Gov. Pawlenty has finally called a closed-door negotiation session, which means they may actually make some progress. The Star Tribune had a nice story Sunday:

The public budget negotiating production of the past few weeks appears to be coming to a swift and merciful close, following lackluster reviews.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced at the end of last week that he had invited all four House and Senate caucus leaders to gather in private in his office Monday.

This ritual has become a session-ending tradition.

One side demands that the talks be out in the open, the other calls their bluff, public talks begin, bluster ensues, two or three meetings occur, both sides look a little foolish, and the doors close and deals are made.

Parleying in public almost never produces an agreement, according to veterans of the process, while private high-level meetings between the governor and Senate and House leaders commonly do.

In the Fargo Forum, Don Davis has a look at the negotiators:

In some ways, it is amazing anything gets done, given the behind-the-scenes tension among Gov. Tim Pawlenty, House Speaker Steve Sviggum and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

Pawlenty, a Republican from suburban Eagan, called legislative leaders into his office to discuss budget matters on the first day of the current special session. Those early talks went nowhere.

Just to tally up: two weeks, no deals made, no bills passed.

The main political story today is the official launch of Kelly Doran's campaign for U.S. Senate. William Wilcoxen covered it for MPR:

Doran says he is a lifelong Democrat. He made it clear, though, that he is in the moderate wing of the party. His campaign staff includes John Wodele, the former spokesman for Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Doran says the practice of promoting junior politicians to senior politicians has not served the country well. He spoke of the need to send citizens to Washington to put the nation's interests ahead of partisanship.

"Someone must put a stop to this red and blue adversarial insanity that goes on in Washington D.C.," said Doran. "We are not red and blue. We are Americans. The children who suffer from this fiscal insanity and irresponsibility don't know if they live in a red state or a blue state. They only know that when they're hungry it's hard to concentrate in the classroom. And when they're sick they should be able to go to the doctor."

Doran declined to be specific about the size of his personal fortune or how much of it he's prepared to spend on his Senate bid. He joins Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar in campaigning to be the Democrat on the November 2006 Senate ballot. Doran hasn't decided whether to seek the party endorsement, while Klobuchar says she won't run in the primary if she's not endorsed.

So a primary is a sure thing on the DFL side, while Mark Kennedy is the only candidate on the GOP side.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 7:16 AM

June 3, 2005
Pawlenty vs Hatch (again)

The smoldering feud between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch has flared up again, this time over the issue of a possible government shutdown. Of course if Pawlenty and legislative leaders can reach a deal on the budget by the July 1 deadline, it all becomes moot. But for now, Pawlenty is questioning Hatch's ability to argue on behalf of the administration. Here is how MPR's Michael Khoo put it:

"Our attorney can't also be simultaneously our political opponent. That's a very awkward posture. And again, the situation's going to be tense enough as it is if it gets to that point, and awkward enough as it is without having that extra layer of complexity or tension or conflict," Pawlenty said.

In a letter to Hatch, Pawlenty asks him to consider stepping aside, saying "the 2006 election should not compromise the public's interest." Pawlenty and Hatch have a history of squabbling and trading public barbs over each other's performance in office. But Hatch says Pawlenty has mistaken the respective roles of the governor and the attorney general.

In 2001, the state faced a similar budget crisis before a shutdown was averted at the last minute. Hatch says that at that time, his office successfully petitioned the courts to grant spending authority to a broad range of state officials. But he says in doing so, he represented the entire state of Minnesota not just then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. He says if history repeats itself, he again won't be serving directly as the governor's legal advisor and therefore any conflict between the two is irrelevant.

"We don't have a king. We have a state government," Hatch said. "And when we go into court, we represent state government and we ask the court, 'will you fund those core functions?'"

All this raises one question: if there's not enough money to pay for government to stay open, who pays for the outside lawyer the governor would have to hire to argue the case?

Of course the Legislature did get some things done during the regular session, including passing a public safety bill. The governor signed it Thursday as noted by the Star Tribune:

The new law will lock up the most heinous sex offenders for life without possibility of parole and many others with open-ended prison sentences up to life. And it will severely curb sales of popular cold remedies in an effort to rein in the manufacture of the illegal stimulant methamphetamine.

Also included is a new felony crime of domestic assault by strangulation.

The provision, which may be the biggest effect of the law, at least in the short term, could send hundreds of abusers to prison for up to three years.

The overall bill appropriates $1.685 billion for more law enforcement, court and prison resources to fight crime.

The amount is a 16 percent, two-year increase in tight budget times.

The governor had a busy day Thursday. He was also in St. Cloud where he talked again about one of his pet issues--performance pay for legislators. The St. Cloud Times has the story:

Pawlenty's visit was part of a swing to urge lawmakers to settle on money for public schools. In the speech, Pawlenty also pitched his performance-pay plan for teachers.

He responded to a question on why there have been nine special sessions in 11 years. "One of the things I'd love to see dearly is performance pay for politicians," Pawlenty answered. "It could end this now."

If the Legislature did not finish on time, lawmakers, including the governor, would not be paid in the summer or would lose part of their pay, he said.

Pawlenty expressed support for a plan from Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, for special elections in July when the Legislature enters a special session.

At the Capitol, Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said Pawlenty's idea is a way to avoid "talk about cutting working people off from health care and increasing property taxes."

The special session goes into week three next week. Anybody want to bet on when they'll resolve this thing?

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:39 AM

June 2, 2005
Talk, talk, talk

There was some long distance posturing Wednesday, but still no deal at the Capitol. And planning has begun for a government shutdown. DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson seems to take pleasure at poking at Gov. Pawlenty when the governor is on a road trip. It goes back to the last weeks of the session when Johnson was on the road and the governor made an issue of his absence. On Wednesday johnson appeared to reject the governor's cigarette tax. MPR's Michael Khoo has the story:

Johnson says he doubts the plan would even pass in the GOP-run House. And he suggested that until Republicans can prove otherwise, the Pawlenty cigarette plan isn't ready for discussion. Johnson, meanwhile, says citizens still expect adequate funding for health care and education -- programs the Senate funds with significant tax increases, including a new upper-tier income tax bracket.

"There's a whole group of folks out there, called the majority of Minnesotans, that want it our way. And they want it for schools, and they want it for health care, and they want it for roads, and they want it for the environment," said Johnson.

But top Republican lawmakers and the governor say they're steadfastly against the Senate's medley of proposed tax increases. And House Speaker Steve Sviggum says he has no intention of bringing the governor's cigarette tax to the House floor for a test vote.

Sviggum -- who, along with Pawlenty, insists the cigarette charge is a "fee," not a "tax" -- says with time running out, the Senate's piecemeal approach to budget-building makes no sense.

No wonder the governor's office has started to quietly plan for shutting down state agencies starting on July 1.

Along with trying to find a funding source for taxpayer funded health care programs, a DFL-sponsored plan to identify companies with large numbers of uninsured employees. The Star Tribune has that story:

The world's largest retailer has denounced as a public-relations ploy legislation -- which some state legislators have dubbed the "anti-Wal-Mart bill" -- that would create a public list of companies whose workers are enrolled in MinnesotaCare and other government-funded health care programs.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant recently sent two executives to St. Paul to lobby against the bill, which the Legislature may vote on in special session this month. Wal-Mart also sent a two-page letter describing its health care benefits to every legislator in the state.

"This is not health care reform," said Nate Hurst, public and government relations manager for Wal-Mart. "This is a campaign against Wal-Mart."

But proponents of the bill, whose chief author is Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, say the public has a right to know which employers have become a drain on the state's public health care system. They say the bill does not target Wal-Mart in particular but is meant to see how the state can work with companies to provide better health care programs.

As we said yesterday there's another DFLer in the race for governor. MPR's Tom Scheck has that story:

Standing in front of a yellow school bus with friends and family, Kelley announced his bid for governor. Wearing a kelly green tie, of course, Kelley said he would focus on core Democratic issues if he's elected governor. He says his campaign will be about improving Minnesota's quality of life.

"If we want more jobs, better roads, clean water and affordable health care, we must care a lot more about the education of our youth today," he said.

Kelley served in the Minnesota Senate since 1996. Prior to that, he was in the Minnesota House for four years.

Kelley's been a leading advocate on issues involving technology. He's also been a constant foil to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Kelley played a large part in the ouster of Cheri Pierson-Yecke, Pawlenty's first choice for education commissioner. As the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Kelley has also criticized the governor's budget proposals. He said the state is headed in the wrong direction under Pawlenty.

Finally everybody is still talking about the governor's veto of the poet laureate bill. And everybody is still writing bad poems about it. MPR's Steven John sent me this one that he wrote:

The notion of a poet laureate sent Pawlenty's pen to excoriate,

a bill that wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime.

No, our fiscal-minded governor says a head poet could be fodder
for future requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter.

Now, Governor Tim can abide a state folklorist and muffin,
a norway pine is a grand tree and a loon beats a puffin.

But, a top Minnesota poet, it seems a bit much....
Besides, the governor is too busy with special sessions and such.

But to lawmakers the last word could be due...
If a veto over ride they seek to pursue.

However, that's not likely according to the bill's sponsor,
Representative Barb Sykora, a Republican from Excelsior.

I'm sure she believes like the rest of her caucus,
...better buckle down or be at the Capitol in August.

Is it just me, or are some of those rhymes clinkers? Listen this afternoon as Mr. John delivers his newscasts in iambic pentameter.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:40 AM

June 1, 2005
Deeply disappointed

After all these years we finally know who Deep Throat is, and I for one am a little disappointed. When the news broke Tuesday that Vanity Fair had actually once and for all found the Washington Post's anonymous source on the Watergate story, much of the newsroom here at MPR (especially Kerri Miller, who loves a big story) was excited about the mystery finally being solved. I found myself hoping for more. I can't exactly put my finger on it. Maybe it has to do with so little being secret anymore. I had thought he would go to his grave without being outed. Now all the fun is gone. Mark Felt. It was Mark Felt. There you go. Move on to the next story.

There's still not much happening at the Capitol. Can the big story really be that Gov. Pawlenty vetoed the bill creating a state poet laureate? The Star Tribune thinks so. It put it on the front page:

In a veto message signed Friday and announced Tuesday, however, Pawlenty said he saw no need for such a position.

"We can benefit from the richness and diversity of all of the poets in Minnesota and recognize and embrace their work as merit and circumstances warrant," he said.

He also suggested that the measure could lead to "requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter."

According to the Library of Congress, about 34 states have established poet laureate positions, although some are vacant.

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, a pipefitter who was a House cosponsor of the vetoed legislation, noted that England has yet to produce a potter laureate. "I found the governor's logic rather contrived," he said Tuesday.

Others offered sharper criticism.

"Mr. Pawlenty seems to think that if you keep from raising taxes, the imagination will cease to be rambunctious," said Bill Holm, a poet and essayist from Minneota, Minn. "He's terrified of the imagination rearing up and giving a good, swift kick to his dead ideas."

Geez, now even the poetry bill is tied to no new taxes. Ouch.

Former DFL Congressman Joseph Karth has died. This is from the obit in the Pioneer Press:

Karth was born in New Brighton in 1921 and studied at the University of Nebraska School of Engineering before leaving to join the Army. After serving in Europe during World War II, Karth returned to Minnesota to work at 3M, in the St. Paul company's tape department.

Shortly thereafter, Karth organized the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) at 3M and was elected its president, the job that launched his political career. He went on to serve as the OCAW-AFL-CIO's international representative and a DFL Party representative in the Minnesota Legislature before he was elected to Congress in 1958. He represented Minnesota's 4th District for 18 years before a heart attack forced him to retire in 1977. St. Paul DFLer Bruce Vento, who died in 2000, succeeded him.

Those who knew Karth during his time in Congress characterized him as a down-to-earth lawmaker who liked getting his hands dirty.

Gov. Pawlenty is travelling the state today to try to build some support for his education spending plan. DFL Sen. Steve Kelley will officially announce he's running for Pawlenty's job. We'll have more on both throughout the day on the radio and here tomorrow.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:33 AM