ST. CLOUD - Continuing a combative crossfire that has marked the opening of the 2008 legislative session, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday waved a red veto pen in legislators' faces and vowed "to stop government from digging into your wallets."
In a State of the State address rich in tributes to Minnesota's pioneering spirit, Pawlenty urged cooperation across party lines to improve the state's transportation system. But he drew perhaps his strongest response when he brandished his pen and declared his determination to "restrain taxes and spending," a message that has been at the center of his tenure as governor.
"I call it the taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen," Pawlenty said, pulling the pen from his left breast pocket. "As you know I will not hesitate to use it. ..."
The threat was a shot across the bow to DFL majorities in both houses of the Legislature, whose leaders have in recent days declared their own intentions to quickly pass several measures to increase taxes, particularly for transportation funding.
Pawlenty has proposed funding local road and bridge projects through bonding, and he warned DFLers not to delete that provision from the bill. DFLers have proposed increasing gas taxes and other fees to provide more transportation funding. Pawlenty vetoed a similar plan last year.
In the 30-minute speech at the St. Cloud Civic Center, Pawlenty made a passing reference to the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, which has sparked widespread concerns about the state's infrastructure. He noted the August collapse and floods in southeastern Minnesota the same month as examples of how the state recently "faced the most difficult of challenges."
"Strong differences of opinion exist regarding transportation funding," Pawlenty said. "But we all can agree on one thing -- we cannot continue the stalemate that has existed for three decades."
DFL leaders faulted the Republican governor for providing few specifics on how to respond to weakening economic conditions.
"It was disappointing that the governor did not address more straight on how we can produce more jobs in this state and do our part together to reverse the 23,000 lost jobs in this state in the last six months. That was a real disappointment today," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.
Much of Pawlenty's speech focused on education and health care reform.
Pawlenty is seeking ways to encourage lower health costs through electronic medical records and uniform billing, along with more aggressive prevention and treatment of chronic conditions.
In education, Pawlenty wants to increase funding for specialized math and science academies to train teachers, and backs encouraging those with market skills who might want to find an alternative way to get into teaching.
House and Senate Republican leaders heralded one of the few new initiatives proposed in the speech -- the idea of a tax reform commission to consider changes in tax law to spur job growth.
"If we can't grow Minnesota business we can't sustain all the services that government wants to do and perhaps needs to do," said Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester.
But the proposal of a tax commission fell flat for Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis.
Pogemiller said the state's tax system has grown increasingly less fair by forcing property tax increases on homeowners, renters and businesses and by failing to close corporate loopholes.
"I think continually admiring the problem is probably not the most productive thing to do. Anybody can cut things. It takes creativity and leadership to bring revenue to the table," Pogemiller said.
Words vs. action
Pawlenty also urged support of a package to enhance benefits for active military members and veterans, an economic incentive program for Greater Minnesota known as Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development or SEED, support of farmers through bio-fuels and other farm-grown energy initiatives, and he encouraged the purchase of 3,000 acres of land in northern Minneota to establish the first new major state park in 40 years.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said Pawlenty's proposals fly in the face of his commitment to belt tightening.
"You add up the initiatives, they all cost money and he doesn't propose how to pay for it. We're in deficit mode and he's proposing new spending. It's a lot of words and usually not a lot of action," he said.
But Pawlenty's veto threat sparked a standing ovation, one of two he received during the speech (the other followed acknowledgment of former St. Cloud Mayor Al Loehr, who was in the audience).
"This is what the real people care about," said Minnesota Republican Party chairman Ron Carey after the speech. "Even the choir stood up for that one."
Indeed, the St. John's Boys Choir, which sang the national anthem at the start of the festivities, had jumped to its feet in enthusiastic support, although none would be eligible to vote for at least the next six years.
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636