Mark Phillips, the state's employment and economic development commissioner, didn't sound any too eager Tuesday when he described the task that the Legislature assigned to his agency -- the division of a $47.5 million bonding pot among local and regional projects it deems to match statutory criteria.
At least one key legislator explained this unprecedented assignment as an experiment in "getting the politics out" of such decisions.
But Phillips is savvy enough to know that politics is inextricable from such decisions, whether they are made by the legislative or executive branch of government.The commissioner also knows that this task is prone to win him him more criticism than praise. Ninety applications totalling $288 million -- many more than expected -- were made for a piece of a pie that now looks paltry at $47.5 million.
"The governor and I aren't keen on this," Phillips told reporters. "This isn't our role. This has been the Legislature's role since 1858."
In that regard, it fits a pattern. In recent years, the Legislature has opted more than once to boot elsewhere a decision it was fully empowered to make itself. That was case in 2006, when it asked voters to constitutionally dedicate the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation purposes, and in 2008, when it went to the voters again to raise the sales tax for arts and conservation. This year's photo ID amendment is in that category too.
In each of those cases, a legislative majority was trying an end-run around an opponent in the governor's office. In this instance, the "opponent" seemed to be the right wing of the legislative majority's own party. The Tea Party push for a teeny bonding bill left little room for regional projects. Rather than tell pleaders for those projects a flat "no," GOP leaders created the bonding pool and asked the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to play the heavy -- er, to decide.
Legislators may think they've cleverly dodged accountability. I expect that citizens in the know will think otherwise.