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Analysis: Democratic agenda not finished

ST. PAUL - On a sunny day last August, House Democrats told reporters gathered at the Minnesota State Fair their top three issues in the 2007 legislative session would be health care, education and property tax relief.

Senate Democrats later embraced those three priorities, while adding more of their own.

But if success is defined as getting priorities passed into law, they didn't fare well.

The House and Senate each passed bills doing what Democrats wanted, but pending Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision on some bills passed at the end of the legislative session, the public may consider the priorities failures to some degree.

The reason Democratic priorities fizzled was because of "a difference in political philosophies that collided here," said Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury.

Voters who hoped to see DFL priorities achieved over the session likely won't blame the governor, Swails said.

"They'll blame the Legislature, sadly," Swails said.

Success in the legislative process involves what lawmakers can convince a governor to sign. And Pawlenty steadfastly refuses to increase state taxes, which Democrats say is needed to fund their priorities.

After the legislative session adjourned, House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm was asked if Democrats achieved a passing grade. "I absolutely believe so," he responded.

But, as Swails said, the public may not see it that way.

Take property tax relief. That was Senate Democrats' No. 1 priority and generally listed as No. 3 among House Democrats.

"The governor said 'no' to that," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud said.

Pawlenty indicates he likely will veto a tax bill soon after it reaches his desk in coming days.

In the face of Pawlenty's opposition, Democrats dropped a new income tax on the richest Minnesotans, which was destined to give property tax relief to all homeowners. The slimmed-down tax bill awaiting a veto included a slimmed-down tax relief provision.

Without the tax bill, Minnesotans can expect their property taxes to jump $600 million in the next two years.

"We would have loved to do more for property tax," Sertich said.

Clark said Democrats never expected the health care system to be fixed this year. But, she said, lawmakers laid the groundwork for improving insurance coverage for poor Minnesotans by adding 20,000 children to the rolls in this year's session.

Next year, Clark and other Democrats often say, will be the health care session.

Sertich left the door open to finding more health-care money next year, even though lawmakers passed a two-year budget this month. "There are always some adjustments as need be."

In the health area, especially, Sertich predicted money will be found to better reimburse nursing homes.

Education ended as something of a mixed bag, even though school funding increases in the next two-year budget.

"We made very modest steps," Clark said.

Democrats wanted to fund all-day, every-day kindergarten. They ended up spending $32.5 million instead of more than $300 million originally sought.

Clark said the smaller kindergarten measure is start.

"We can get the kinks out, but we need to find money," she said. "It is a baby step."

Pawlenty said his budget proposal called for bigger general state aid increases to schools than what legislators approved.

When asked why less was allocated, Pawlenty said: "Ask the DFL majority who ran as the champions of K-12 education and produced a bill that was mediocre."

Sertich said many expected more from this year's Legislature.

"There were higher expectations, not just by legislators but by the public," he said. "But ultimately you have to deal with the governor at the end of the day."

The way Democrats funded education and health care will hurt rural areas, some Republicans say.

"Minneapolis is running the show," Rep. Doug Magnus, DFL-Slayton, said. "Rural wants nursing homes, they want welfare."

One example rural Republicans use is how education funding was increased. Since much of the new education money will go to special education programs, that will help big city-schools that have more special education needs.

Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing said if the DFL agenda wasn't accomplished, it wasn't for lack of trying.

"We did everything we could" to achieve the goals, Murphy said. "But that didn't happen."

Their priorities kept Democratic-Farmer-Labor members "heading in the right direction" over the session, said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley.

"We're making progress," Eken said.

The Legislature's finished product produced an "extremely light" representation of what Democrats wanted, said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. That was frustrating, he said, "because I think the public thought we were in charge."

Democrats' ability to achieve their top priorities was hampered by Pawlenty's agenda, said Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy. Still, DFLers came through "all right," he said.

"I don't think any Democrat has to go home and hang his head down," Vickerman said. "We don't have anything to be ashamed of."

State Capitol Bureau reporters Scott Wente and Mike Longaecker contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.