Gov.'s move changes balance of power
Gov. Tim Pawlenty left Democrats sputtering when he vowed to balance the state budget on his own, without the Minnesota Legislature.
It was a move that changed the contours of the session's final days.
Democrats may have miscalculated by sending Pawlenty a full slate of budget bills days ahead of Monday's deadline, leaving time to recraft spending packages or attempt overrides if he vetoed some. Most years, lawmakers hold back at least one piece of legislation the governor wants until the end, to keep him negotiating.
But this year, the Republican governor did the unexpected: Pawlenty called a news conference last week to say he would sign all the bills, enacting a two-year budget and removing the threat of a government shutdown. He then would strip out items he didn't like through line-item vetoes and his executive authority to delay or cancel spending.
The maneuver gives Pawlenty unprecedented power to shape the state budget in a deficit. He must consult with top lawmakers before making cuts, but their approval is not required.
With extra large majorities in both houses, DFL'ers rule the Legislature. But they lack the votes to override Pawlenty in the House. At least three Republicans have to join the Democrats to buck the governor.
It happened last year, after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse highlighted the failings of the state's infrastructure. Six House Republicans broke ranks to join Democrats in enacting a gas tax increase over Pawlenty's objections.
But that equation didn't work this year. House Republicans hung together.
"We came roaring back to be very relevant in the session to hold the Democrats accountable," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.
Some Democrats see an upside in Pawlenty's plan.
With the state facing a $6.4 billion shortfall -- nearly a fifth of the budget, before stimulus dollars -- no one wanted to take the blame for cutting state programs. With Pawlenty bypassing the Legislature, the responsibility, and blame, would be all his.
Democrats wanted Republican legislators to share the governor's burden, so they forced two override attempts to get GOP members on record backing Pawlenty. They tried to reinstate a $381 million state health program for low-income adults, failing on a party-line 87-47 vote. They also fell five votes short of overriding a vetoed $1 billion tax increase, with two Democrats voting no.
On the last night, at the last minute, Democrats rushed through a retooled version of the tax increase even though a veto was certain. They wanted to claim they balanced the budget, even though Pawlenty would be doing the job on his own.
"It's the governor's choice now about what he's going to do next," DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said.
The session ended with Pawlenty ready to veto the $2.7 billion tax-and-payment delay package and sitting on a $2.7 billion budget imbalance, to be erased through delays and reductions. He nixed about $400 million in spending through line-item vetoes, including eliminating General Assistance Medical Care for low-income childless adults, starting next summer.
Pawlenty said Tuesday he aims to outline his solo budget-balancing plan before July 1.
"For all practical effect this legislative session ended last Thursday when the governor announced that he was not going to work out a compromise with the Legislature, that he was going to do it on his own," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
"I think in reality he withdrew from the discussions last week and the rest of it was just a pretense of negotiation," Winkler said.