The House got off to an amicable start Tuesday - passing the agriculture and veterans affairs budget bill by a vote of 131-2. The bill provides funding for agriculture programs and renewable energy programs. It would also provide additional support for Minnesota's veterans.
The bill's author, Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said before the vote that he was pleased that Republicans and Gov. Tim Pawlenty like his bill.
"They have said a couple of times that my bill is the only one the governor will sign," he said. "I'm excited about that. We want to get it done and get it over to him and get it signed." Juhnke's legislation may be the only budget bill that Gov. Pawlenty and Republicans like. The debate on the bill lasted only two hours. The mood changed on the next bill when lawmakers spent more than 10 hours debating dozens of amendments. That tone is likely to continue throughout the rest of the budget debate.
DFLers in control of the Legislature are pushing to expand a number of state programs and want to raise taxes to pay for them. The governor has repeatedly threatened to veto any tax increases at a time when the state has an extra $2 billion to spend.
Even so, the House is proposing to hike income taxes on Minnesota's top earners. The extra revenue would pay for property tax relief for homeowners. That, in turn, would free up money for other programs like all-day kindergarten and broader state health insurance coverage for children.
DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich of Chisholm says the tax increase is needed.
"If we want to reduce property taxes and make sure that our schools are funded adequately and cover more children with health care, more revenue is needed," he said. "We think that's a doable goal and one we will maintain during the session."
The House action was the start of a weeklong debate on a slate of budget bills. The process is likely to last until Saturday.
During the debate, several GOP members complained about the tax and fee increases in the bills. Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, used an old story to describe the harm he thinks Democrats are doing to the state's economy.
"But like the parable of the boiling frog," he said, "let's turn up the heat a little and then a little more and a little more because the frog doesn't notice when you do that. And pretty soon you boil the frog to death. And that's what we're doing to the taxpayers of the state of Minnesota. We keep turning up the heat."
Even though DFLers dominate both chambers of the Legislature, the House and Senate budgets are different. The Senate budget includes a broader income tax increase on top earners and a jump in the statewide business property tax.
Negotiators for the two chambers will have to resolve the differences after the House passes its budget bills. The Senate passed its budget bills before Easter.
Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung is already hinting at the possibility of a second round of budget bills if the House and Senate insist on raising taxes.
"Certainly if the Legislature understands where the governor is coming from, and they should as he's communicated to them clearly in a number of meetings and letters to the Legislature, and they decide that they're going to go another route and not enact these massive tax hikes it could maybe save us the next step," he said. "But if that's the method they're seeking then we're prepared to respond in kind."
House Republicans also say they will stand by the governor if he does veto tax hikes. GOP House Minority Leader Marty Seifert says his caucus may be supportive of certain DFL budget plans but would not cross party lines and vote to override any of the governor's vetoes.
"Each and every veto whether they be line items or overall vetoes, they're going to be sustained," he said. "They really need to take the governor seriously. Because we have people like Dennis Ozment who say 'I'll vote for some of these bills, but if it's vetoed I'm there.' You can't read into if a bill passes 100 to 34. That doesn't mean anything today."
House DFL leaders say they hope to pass all of their spending bills, including the Health and Human Services bill and the higher education budget bill by Saturday. If Tuesday's floor session is any indication, House members are likely to reach the weekend exhausted from the long hours but not much closer to resolving the disagreement at the heart of the debate.