Think Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to remove himself from the 2010 political equation will bring peace to an acrimonious Capitol? Think again.
Pawlenty, who left the door open to a presidential bid, will remain an enticing target for Democrats eager to make him appear out of step with public opinion. There might even be more incentive to rough up a politician headed for the national stage.
If Pawlenty harbors White House aspirations, he won't budge from his hard line on state taxes and spending - two areas he'd be graded on by GOP kingmakers and primary voters as 2012 approaches.
And don't discount the gubernatorial jockeying his departure creates.
"Half the people I negotiate with here are running or thinking of running or plotting to get my job," Pawlenty said Tuesday. "It's a weird situation."
No fewer than a dozen sitting legislators are running for governor or being pushed in that direction.
Prospective rivals, including those wearing the same party jerseys, will be studying each others' moves and trying to keep a leash on one another.
Pawlenty's move toward the exit likely will produce a more toxic environment.
"There's every reason to expect it will turn up the temperature on the partisan pot," said Joe Kunkel, chairman of the political science department at Minnesota State University in Mankato. "There's more motive on everyone's part for conflict and less motive for cooperation and harmony."
The key challenge for lawmakers, a battered budget, won't change.
“Half the people I negotiate with here are running, or thinking of running, or plotting to get my job.”Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Pawlenty's strategy of patching the problem through unilateral spending cuts will drive debate in the 2010 session, which begins two days after the gubernatorial endorsing season opens with precinct caucuses.
The governor plans to backload his budget cuts to give legislators time to come up with alternatives.
Democrats are reeling from some cuts already announced, most notably his decision to cancel a health insurance program for poor adults who don't have children. They will be working to re-establish the General Assistance Medical Care program before it expires in July 2010.
Pawlenty will maintain a powerful bargaining position in his lame-duck year. Lawmakers have three options before them: Let Pawlenty's cuts stand, work with him on a compromise or convince Republicans to help go over his head.
The last is the most intriguing. Republican legislators have consistently shielded Pawlenty. All but one of Pawlenty's 220 vetoes have stood in his seven years.
The exception was a multibillion-dollar transportation bill financed in part with a gas tax increase. Four of the six House Republicans who crossed him on that 2007 override vote didn't return after the 2008 election.
It's worth noting that Pawlenty's party has lost ground in the Legislature every election since he became governor - the Senate GOP fell from 31 members in 2003 to 21 last year; the House Republican caucus sunk from 81 seats to 47 in the same span.
Self-preservation instincts could kick in for Republicans nervous about state aid cuts to their local hospitals, colleges and municipal treasuries. Democrats are certain to confront them with tax increases to blunt those cuts - legislation Pawlenty is sure to veto.
State Sen. Tom Bakk, the chairman of the Tax Committee and a Democratic candidate for governor, said having Pawlenty in play politically in 2010 would make an override more difficult because fellow Republicans wouldn't want to agitate a governor who could be back.
"He is not on the ballot and everybody else is," Bakk said. "The legislative members are going to be more sensitive to public opinion than the governor is because he's not going to have to face the voters."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)