Harmony at Capitol may be short-livedby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
The 2006 legislative session got underway Wednesday, with plenty of talk about bipartisan cooperation. No one at the Capitol wants a repeat of the last couple of sessions, which were, by all accounts, dysfunctional. State leaders are pledging a short, productive session. But they disagree on what the agenda should be, and that is already threatening their pledge of harmony.
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers are back in session for the first time since last July, when gridlock led to the state's first partial government shutdown.
Gov. Pawlenty used the first day of the session to renew his call for performance pay for politicians. Under his proposal, if the Legislature didn't pass a budget on time, neither legislators nor the governor would get paid until the budget was completed.
"I think it's a pretty important issue. I think if you ask the people of Minnesota, 'Do you support reforming our process along these lines?' It would get overwhelming support," said Pawlenty.
Republican legislative leaders back Pawlenty's proposal, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum predicted it would pass the House. But DFL leaders think Pawlenty's idea is a distraction.
"Honestly, governor, it's kind of childish. It's time to grow up and lead this state and unite us," responded Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.
Johnson, the Senate's top Democrat, says Pawlenty and other Republican leaders are already focusing on divisive issues such as legislators' pay, immigration and gay marriage.
"I have never seen such scampering and scurrying about by the Republicans as I do now. It's about this issue, that issue, this issue," said Johnson. "And I have all I can do to rein them in and say, let's talk about education, transportation, environment, energy and the bonding bill, and then let's go home."
Pawlenty bristles at the suggestion that his proposals are a distraction from more important matters. He says Democrats just don't want to talk about issues like immigration.
"You got the president of the United States, the United States Congress, and legislators from both sides of the aisle vigorously debating the issue all across the country. But if you raise it in Minnesota, then it's a political issue," said Pawlenty.
Pawlenty wants to crack down on illegal immigration and false identification, and encourage legal immigration.
Pawlenty's legislative agenda at this point is brief. In addition to immigration and legislator pay, it includes targeting more education spending to the classroom, and tax relief. He says he'll spell out his proposals when he releases his supplemental budget next week.
House Republicans have a longer list that includes Pawlenty's priorities, plus health care and transportation. Democrats are talking about property tax relief, health care, and more money for early childhood education.
The one area of general agreement is the bonding bill, the main task of the session. Two years ago, the Legislature failed to agree on a capital investment package, but state leaders say that won't happen this year. The bill is the top issue for most legislators, since many have projects in their districts that are in line for state funding.
A group of freshman House Democrats is urging legislative leaders to take up the bonding bill before tackling other issues. Bev Scalze of Little Canada, who was elected after the Legislature failed to pass the bonding bill in 2004, says voters are tired of gridlock.
"Passing the bonding bill very quickly will show the citizens of Minnesota that we are here, we are serious, we want to do an efficient job for the state, and we want to get our work done on time," said Scalze.
All 201 legislative seats and the governor are on the ballot this year, and politicians want to improve their image before voters head to the ballot box.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, says many constituents were disgusted by last year's partisan rancor. He says if the tone doesn't change, he thinks voters will throw out many incumbents this fall. But he admits he's skeptical that things will change.
"You talk about the positioning, political positioning and trying to play those games -- it's gut-wrenching. As a freshman legislator, it's difficult to sit by and watch that happen. However, I guess it's part of politics," said Hamilton.
If the first day of session is any indication, there will be no shortage of controversial issues for the next 12 weeks. Committees took up immigration and funeral protests, and Minnesotans on both sides of the gay marriage debate held signs in front of the Senate chamber.