Many observers hoped that this year’s legislative session would be quick and non-controversial. After all, the state has a projected budget surplus, meaning that there will be no repeat of last year’s lengthy budget standoff that resulted in a state government shutdown. Those observers felt that legislators – who are waiting anxiously for the new redistricting maps to be released later this month – would prefer to keep their head down, get some work done, and then focus on their re-election campaigns.
Not only that, but they pointed to the election of Republican State Sen. David Senjem as the new majority leader as a sign that things would be less acrimonious. Senjem is a Senate veteran who was widely hailed as a conciliatory voice during his previous tenure as minority leader for Republicans.
It took less than a day for those hopes to be shattered. Senjem and his leadership team (including Chanhassen State Sen. Julianne Ortman) delivered what was perceived by DFLers as a sharp partisan blow – forcing a cut in DFL staff budgets of over $400, 000 while not reducing Republican staff dollars at all in an effort to close a $2.5 million budget gap for the State Senate. This prompted a stinging, sharply worded rebuke from DFL minority leader Tom Bakk over both the cuts themselves and the process that led to them in the first place.
Ortman was also in the middle of the second major partisan controversy of the session – the party-line vote by Republican senators to remove former State Sen. Ellen Anderson as the chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Anderson was a well-known environmental advocate when she was nominated by Gov. Mark Dayton last spring. However, her nearly oneyear long tenure on the PUC was not controversial. In 221 votes that Anderson participated in, the fivemember board (consisting of two DFLers and 3 Republicans), returned unanimous decisions 205 times. Of the remaining 16 votes, Anderson found herself in the minority only six times.
Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to Anderson’s Senate record for evidence supporting their vote, noting her authorship of a bill that gave the state a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. They failed to note, however, that the bill passed on a bipartisan basis and was signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Dayton’s response to the Anderson “firing” was intense and personal. In his fiery response, Dayton targeted Ortman (who was just one of two Republican Senators to speak on the floor of the Senate in favor removing Anderson) with pointed rhetoric and some incorrect facts.
There seemed to be little doubt in many minds – even though it went unsaid by those involved – that the Anderson decision was in part payback for DFL rejections of two Pawlenty appointees.
So are we doomed to two more months of this nonsense? Let’s hope not – and we can do much as citizens to make sure that we get a session that is productive despite the partisan divisions that paralyze St. Paul far too often.
First, we should insist that legislators get together quickly on the main deliverable of this year’s session:a bonding bill. Gov. Dayton has released a $775 million proposal that is a mix of infrastructure and support for local projects. Legislative Republicans have yet to release their planned bonding bill, only saying that do not plan on spending more than $500 million and they favor a higher infrastructure component than Dayton.
Both parties have valid points here. Dayton has the size of the bill correct, as it equals the average bonding investment over the last decade. With interest rates low and the construction industry looking for a boost, this is exactly the right time to invest in our state’s longterm priorities.
Meanwhile, Republicans are correct that there should be a stronger infrastructure component to the bill. We have crumbling roads and bridges around this state that should be addressed in a more significant fashion. Some local projects specified by Dayton, such as improvements to Nicollet Mall or building a new St. Paul Saints stadium, should wait.
Second, we can demand that legislators seriously tackle governmental reform that has been left outstanding for too long.
Included as part of this agenda would be developing a statute that would defuse much of the harm of failure to reach a budget agreement by the end of the fiscal year, freeing local governments and school districts from certain state mandates, consolidating backoffice functions and purchasing across state agencies to maximize efficiencies, and eliminating loopholes in transparency laws that allow legislators to shield some of their income from disclosure.
Finally, we should expect that politicians on both sides of the aisle to grow up and stop the ridiculous tit-for-tat that passes for discourse in St. Paul. It doesn’t matter who did it first, who did it last, or who did it worst.
We should have higher standards for those who represent us. The decisions they make have real impacts on real people. If a politician is more interested in partisan games than doing the people’s business, it’s up to us to send them home in November.