Legislators give themselves passing grades as session ends

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
After the House adjourned, Gov. Tim Pawlenty held a news conference, during which he criticized DFLers for not including property tax reform in the final push to adjourn.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The exhaustion was obvious, as House Majority Leader Eric Paulsen made the motion to end the 2006 session.

Many lawmakers were bleary-eyed after a marathon weekend of floor sessions, having almost, but not quite, finished Sunday morning. They had one last bill to finish; a $200 million spending measure. They took a break and returned to overwhelmingly pass the bill with only a couple of hours to spare before a midnight deadline. It will pay for additional costs to lock up sex offenders, bird flu preparedness, early childhood programs, and veterans initiatives, among others.

Earlier in the weekend lawmakers approved new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins and the University of Minnesota Gophers. They passed a bill eliminating the so-called marriage penalty and cutting taxes for some Minnesotans hit by the alternative minimum tax. And they authorized the state to issue bonds for nearly $1 billion in construction projects around the state.

"A lot of great things came out of this session, so I would characterize it as a productive and good session," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Leaders in both parties compromised on major issues, unlike last year's partisan gridlock and partial government shutdown.

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"I kept saying, 'don't let the perfect get in the way of the good, let's find those things that are within the range of the do-able, and do them,' and that's largely what happened this year," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty has already signed into law several initiatives with broad bipartisan support, including bills restricting funeral protests, reducing mercury emissions and limiting local governments' power to seize private property.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar considers the session one of the most productive in his 28 years in the Legislature.

"Two stadiums, which translates into over $1 billion worth of jobs and cost of materials, a billion-dollar bonding bill for jobs and materials and fixing our infrastructure," said Johnson.

Johnson says the recent label of the "do nothing" Legislature has been erased. But House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, a DFLer from St. Paul, was more critical of the session's productivity.

"I think this was a 'C' session. It gets a passing grade for passing the bonding bill, which is the minimal standard, but it can't get an 'A' because the key issues for this state are not stadiums, although they're worth debating, they are, what are we doing for education and health care, and we got a failing grade on those," according to Entenza.

Entenza also faults the Legislature for not doing anything to lower property taxes. GOP leaders say Democrats didn't accept some of their property tax proposals, and want to use the issue to attack Republicans in this year's campaign.

Perhaps one of the session's most notable accomplishments is that it didn't go into overtime, after years of missed budget deadlines and special sessions.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, says voters may notice that more than anything.

"Maybe it's only a day, but we're done early, we're done on time. And with what's happened the last three or four years, and especially last year, I think that was a ... a high-water mark and it was something that a lot of people expected," Zellers said.

Issues that failed to pass the Legislature include a constitutional ban on same sex marriage, abortion measures and a constitutional amendment dedicating sales tax money to conservation and cultural programs. Lawmakers also deadlocked on a transportation bill.

All of these items will now be fodder for the campaign, which rachets up a notch starting now; the governor and legislative leaders will fly around the state touting the session's accomplishments and in some cases, pointing out the failures.