Nick Coleman: Business group helps legislators do the right thing

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2008 - 8:05 PM

Minnesota finally is back in business.

On Monday, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce gave an important boost to lawmakers who took Tim Pawlenty's veto pen away and got him out of the way of solving our transportation troubles.

It's enough to make me apply for chamber membership. Not that they need me. They have 2,600 members, 80 percent of them small-business owners with fewer than 100 employees.

But I come from a line of proud Minnesota small-business owners, too, and I believe that they are the backbone of the state. On Monday, they proved it: They gave spine to a Legislature that was lacking one.

After 36 unanswered vetoes, the Legislature stood up to Pawlenty and tossed one back, overriding his veto (the third) of a transportation bill that will drag Minnesota from the 1980s kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Pawlenty has spun his defeat as a wrong-headed move by tax-crazy DFLers, who furnished most of the 91 votes. But don't believe it.

It wasn't the DFL that beat him. It was six real-world Republicans who voted for reality-based bridges and stood up to a full-court press by Republican leaders worried that an override would embarrass T-Paw at a time when he is being checked for fleas by GOP handlers as the vice presidential sweepstakes begin.

Really, there is no need to worry about embarrassing Minnesota's governor. A bridge could fall down and it wouldn't embarrass him. But the Chamber of Commerce wasn't worried about his reputation. It was just taking care of business.

"This is not an organization that sprints to the Capitol and says, 'Please raise our taxes,'" chamber President David Olson said minutes after Pawlenty's veto was overturned with the help of Republicans such as Ron Erhardt of Edina, Jim Abeler of Anoka and Neil Peterson of Bloomington. "Our members don't like raising taxes," Olson said. "But there is so much pent-up demand [for road construction and repair] that people said, 'We've had enough of doing nothing. You can't fix the problem with nothing.'"

The chamber didn't like bucking Pawlenty.

"We're pleased with the [outcome] but we're not happy to override the governor," Olson said. "He has been good for the business community." Nor was the chamber happy with the limited choices that were presented.

"The chamber would have preferred a different route," Olson said. "I compare it to our dues. You need to address [rising] costs regularly, not all at once. But for years it has been all or nothing, and mostly nothing."

The chamber's support for the $6.6 billion bill -- and for the override of the governor's veto -- played a crucial role Monday and carried a lot of weight in outstate Minnesota.

The Chamber of Commerce is "not exactly a tax and spend liberal organization," the Mankato Free Press said in an editorial, urging an override and citing a study showing the average driver in the Twin Cities loses $1,000 a year in time stuck in traffic, wasted fuel and added car repairs. "Not doing anything," the paper said, would cost more than the 5-cent gas tax in the bill.

Olson agreed.

"Business people can figure out the cost of being stuck in traffic and having employees drive on unsafe roads," he said. "We'll probably be back at the Capitol tomorrow saying, 'Please don't raise our taxes.' But transportation is a different animal. It is time to make an investment."

DFLers in the House of Representatives agreed and, more significantly, so did six Republicans -- proof that the transportation crisis in Minnesota has transcended partisan politics. Monday's override of a Pawlenty veto, the first, was a victory for Minnesotans of all stripes, except the one who seems to be measuring himself for a vice presidential suit.

Pawlenty was on the TV talk shows over the weekend again, offering aw-shucks nondenial denials about running as John McCain's ticket mate in November. "I'm trying to do my job," he said, which is the political equivalent of, "No cake for me, I'm trying to preserve my figure." We all know what's next: "Oh, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to try a little taste."

Doing his job? No. He left that to the Legislature. While he kept his portfolio spotless for the veepstakes, the Legislature sucked it up and did the right thing for the public interest.

Veep-Paw's national aspirations may have taken a hit.

His state transportation system has crumbled to the point that his allies in the business community had to find half a dozen members of his own party to help move the state beyond no-tax voodoo talk and get Minnesotans back on smooth roads.

It's about time.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com

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