Minnesota's looming budget battle cast a shadow over the largely ceremonial start of the 2009 legislative session session. In the Minnesota Senate, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau opened the session with a word of encouragement for lawmakers.
"We face great challenges, and there's much work to be done. But today, in this historic chamber, I know we're up to the task," remarked Molnau.
A similar message was delivered in the Minnesota House by Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis). Kelliher said she'll reach across the aisle and turn to the public for help.
"Even if the path before us is marked by obstacles, and our past positions don't easily bend, we must work for a greater good beyond this our time of service," said Kelliher.
One of the positions Kelliher is out to bend is Gov. Tim Pawlenty's opposition to tax increases. Following the floor session, Kelliher told reporters that the deficit will need a balanced solution reached through spending cuts and reforms in state government operations. But the Speaker repeated the need to keep all options on the table, including tax increases.
"With a nearly $5 billion deficit, and maybe worsening, we will probably need some form of revenue," said Kelliher.
But House Republicans are also ready to fight tax increases.
Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) says asking families and businesses to solve the deficit through higher taxes is unacceptable. Seifert says the budget solution needs to come from downsizing state government, including the Legislature. He's already promising a GOP-led fight to trim the number of committees and roll back per diem payments.
"You know, we've got to do things that are in relationship to leading. Even if it looks like it's symbolic, we need to do our part in solving the budget problems too," said Seifert.
Republicans in the Minnesota Senate took a similar stand, waging a floor fight to try to cut lawmakers' postage allowance. Sen. Geoff Michel (R-Edina) later explained the strategy.
"You know, we're not going to balance the budget with a savings on stamps, but it's important for leaders to lead. It's important for the Senate to do what it can with our own budgets, the things that we control and set an example," said Michel.
Lawmakers will wait another three weeks for Gov. Tim Pawlenty to unveil his two-year budget proposal. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis) is pledging to work with the Republican governor and remain open to his plan.
"There's no partisan solution to this. There's a leadership solution, and there's a duck and hide with your tail between your legs solution, and I would hope that Minnesota elected officials would choose the leadership solution this year," said Pogemiller.
The Senate has two new members who won special elections to fill vacancies. In the House, there are 22 members serving their first term.Rep. Andrew Falk (DFL-Murdock), a farmer, says he was excited and nervous about the opening of the session. Falk never imagined a deficit of nearly $5 billion, but he insists he's ready to get to work.
"I know it's going to be challenging, and we're going to have to work together and really listen to everybody's ideas and discuss the issues. And we have to work as a team for the people of Minnesota. And I'm looking forward to hopefully being a positive part of that solution," said Falk.
The legislative session will start slow. The House and Senate don't have floor sessions scheduled until next Monday, which also the first day for bill introductions. Gov. Pawlenty is expected to outline his priorities for the session on January 15 when he delivers his State of the State address.