Democrats promise fast start to sessionby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Lawmakers return to the State Capitol Tuesday to start the 2008 legislative session. DFL leaders are promising a quick start to the session with hopes of passing legislation that will kick-start the economy. But the state is also facing a budget shortfall, meaning anyone looking for more money from lawmakers will almost certainly be disappointed.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's clear that the state's struggling economy is on the minds of many Minnesotans. Job growth is stagnant, and polls suggest the economy and jobs are the top concern in the state.
DFL legislative leaders say they hope to stem the tide of job losses by addressing three key pieces of legislation right away.
"What Minnesotans are going to see is a jump start on this legislative session unlike they have ever seen before," said DFL House Speaker Margaret Kelliher.
She and DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller said the first three pieces of legislation are a bonding bill, a transportation funding bill that includes a gas tax increase, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would let voters decide on a sales tax increase for outdoors and cultural programs.
Pogemiller said if lawmakers pass a bonding bill and a transportation funding bill quickly, construction workers can start on projects this spring.
"The time to take responsibility for our future is now, this legislative session," he said. "We need to take steps as a community to build a stronger, a more prosperous and a united Minnesota."
Neither Pogemiller nor Kelliher could say how many jobs would be created if a bonding bill and a transportation bill become law. They said they hoped the action would help replace the 23,000 jobs that were lost over the last few months.
Lawmakers will release the details of their transportation bill Tuesday. Speaker Kelliher said it will include a gas tax increase to fund road and bridge construction, and a metrowide sales tax increase for transit projects.
Even though lawmakers are promising quick action, that doesn't guarantee quick results. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung said Pawlenty's top priority this session is keeping spending in check, and vetoing any bills that include a tax increase.
"Our concern is that when the Democrats talk about jump-starting, that they're going to attach the jumper cables to your wallet," he said. "This is not the direction that we should be heading in when you have a tough economy."
In terms of transportation, McClung said 40 percent of Pawlenty's bonding bill proposal is directed to transportation projects.
He said the governor also supports a nickel a gallon gas tax increase, but only if lawmakers offset that tax hike with a tax cut somewhere else.
If that happens, it will only put Minnesota's state budget deeper in the red. Finance officials say Minnesota is facing a $373 million deficit, but that number is expected to grow when another revenue forecast is released in a few weeks.
McClung said the governor would cut government spending to balance the budget. He pointed to the health and human services budget as a possible place to start.
"Any time that you're looking at trying to hold spending back, because of health and human services is such a big part of the budget, that's something that you have to consider," he said.
Efforts to cut those programs have gone nowhere in the past few years, and DFLers in control of the Legislature say they're unlikely to support cuts this year.
Neither Pogemiller nor Kelliher would rule out a tax increase for dealing with the budget. Kelliher said she and other lawmakers were getting frustrated with constant fluctuations in the budget.
"I'm not a particular fan of rides, and I am very sick of being on the budgeting roller coaster," Kelliher said. "The fact that we ended last year on time, within budget, with a $400 million surplus and find ourselves in a deficit already, points to us to what we have been saying all along -- that there are some very big structural issues in this budget."
Several legislative leaders say they'd like to spend more on education and health care, but say it will be difficult unless Pawlenty agrees to a tax increase.
Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert said there should be no talk of a tax increase, and no talk of new programs this session.
"All the new spending initiatives go out the window," Seifert said. "So everybody who had great ideas on new this and new that, millions of dollars for new programs, a new department of energy and all of these new things that they want to create -- those are all frozen out immediately."
DFL legislative leaders say they hope to have the bonding bill and transportation bill passed and signed into law in April, well before May 19, the constitutional deadline for lawmakers to finish their work.
- Morning Edition, 02/12/2008, 7:20 a.m.