Minnesota Legislature: No deal

Minnesota State Capitol
The Minnesota State Capitol.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The Minnesota Legislature hit the midnight deadline with a tax bill headed to the governor, and cries of unfairness by Republicans.

"Mr. President! Mr. President!" shouted angry Republicans, as their motions to be recognized were ignored in the Minnesota Senate.

DFLers, who control both the House and Senate, brought up the tax bill in the final half hour of the session. They also took the unusual step of ending debate and forcing votes on the bill. The House passed the bill at eight minutes to midnight. The Senate quickly followed suit. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said Democrats wanted to pass the bill to fulfill their obligation to balance the state's two year budget.

"It was important to the members of majorities to pass a balanced budget all the way through to the governor's desk," said Kelliher. "It was an important responsibility of ours and we thought it was the time that we needed to do it."

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But Republicans cried foul, saying they had no time to look at the bill, let alone read it. Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said Democrats used their large majorities to break the standard rules for decorum.

"A supermajority has resulted in super arrogance, and that isn't the way that this place is supposed to run," Robling said. "We are supposed to work cooperatively. We had five months to do it. We should have been working on it. I have seen provisions in this bill tonight in the five minutes that I looked at it that I have not seen all session."

DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Tom Scheck/MPR News

The bill would close a $2.7 billion budget gap by delaying payments to schools. It would raise income taxes on joint filers earning more than $250,000 a year, increase alcohol taxes and create a surcharge on lenders charging high interest rates. Democrats said the extra revenue is needed to fix the state's long-term budget problems.

Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung said the governor would veto the bill. He also said Democrats, who will visit several cities around the state, should apologize to the public for not finishing their work.

"And tomorrow when Democrats are flying around Minnesota, Governor Pawlenty will be here at the Capitol meeting with cabinet members and staff to try to finish the work Democrats couldn't get done," McClung said.

Pawlenty will now take the unprecedented step of balancing the state's budget on his own. He said late last week that he would not call lawmakers back for a special session. Instead, he signed their budget bills with some line-item vetoes. He also said he would use his emergency authority to cut spending.

It isn't certain when or which programs Pawlenty will cut. He suggested he would delay $1.7 billion in payments to schools and make cuts to health care programs, aid to local government and higher education. Under state law, he can't take the action until the two year budget starts on July 1.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said he would urge Pawlenty to be cautious with the cuts.

"It's try to be as humane as possible and to try to set priorities," Seifert said. "We're not exactly sure what the numbers are going to be. July 1 is when the process of unallotment starts, but there's a lot of work leading up to that."

"A supermajority has resulted in super arrogance."

DFL legislative leaders said they also hope to give Pawlenty advice on where to cut spending but he is not required by law to listen to them.

Even though there was no budget deal, lawmakers spent the day actively passing policy bills. The House and Senate are sending a bill to Pawlenty that would change election law. It would move the party primaries from September to August and would also standardize the collection and counting of absentee ballots.

Rep. Ryan Winkler DFL-Golden Valley said the long-running U.S. Senate race showed there were problems with the absentee ballot system.

"We have run into problems where they are counted on election night in the precincts," Winkler said. "After a long day the election judges, I think, have some inconsistencies for how those are entered and tracked. This is important for making sure that absentee ballots that are actually cast are counted in the next election and that at least would be a significant step forward."

Winkler said he removed a provision that would have allowed early voting with the hopes that it would garner Republican support. He said the bill would probably be vetoed unless it had bipartisan support. No Republican voted for it in the House or Senate. Rep. Tom Emmer R-Delano, was one of many Republicans who wanted the bill to require voters to present photo identification at the polls.

"There's absolutely no consideration whatsover given to photo ID despite the fact that 70 to 80 percent of Minnesota has said that this is an issue that they want addressed," Emmer said. "The majority party and you as the author have said no."

Winkler said he offered to include a study of the issue but Republicans turned that proposal down. While it's questionable as to whether the governor will sign the elections bill, his spokesman said he will sign a bill that allows law enforcement to pull a motorist over for not wearing a seat belt.

The issue has been debated at the Capitol for years but never garnered enough votes in the House. This year, the House voted 73 to 60 to pass the bill. Rep. Kim Norton DFL-Rochester said Minnesota will gain $3.4 million in federal funds with the so-called primary seat belt law. But, she said that wasn't the reason to pass it.

"We should not adopt a cavalier attitude about the issue of racial profiling."

"We should do this because we will save lives," Norton said. "We will do this because we will save significant hospital costs, not only to Medicaid and Medicare, but also to the families that live in the state of Minnesota.

Opponents of the bill include civil libertarians, and urban legislators who fear racial profiling. Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said police are pulling over people of color too often for the wrong reasons.

"We should not adopt a cavalier attitude about the issue of racial profiling," Mariani said. "And provide yet another pass to bigoted cops to pull over citizens in this state and subject them to that kind of fascist, bigoted oppression."

The House and Senate also passed a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to use marijuana to treat their pain. 13 states currently have a so-called medical marijuana law. Supporters, like Rep. Rick Hanson D-South St. Paul, said it's compassionate to let people die in comfort. He described how his dying mother struggled at the end of her life.

"Now even if my mother was still alive, I don't know if she would want to do this, but there are other people out there and if you ever had to look a loved one in the eye as they ask you to lessen the pain, I think it's worth a green vote," Hanson said.

Opponents of the bill say they're worried about the expansion of drug use. Rep. Steve Gottwalt R-St. Cloud:

"Members, it is wrong to use the pain and discomfort of sick people to sell this bill which is promoted by an organization that seeks general legalization of marijuana in every state in this nation," Gottwalt said.

Pawlenty's spokesman said he'll veto the bill.

As lawmakers head back to their districts to explain the successes and failures of the legislative session, interest groups are gearing up for the looming budget cuts. City officials said they intend to urge lawmakers and Pawlenty to preserve funding for cities and counties.

DFL legislative leaders said they will hold committee hearings over the break to gauge the impact of the cuts. The 2010 legislative session is scheduled to start on February 4th.