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Continued: In GOP, a deep divide over hard line on budget

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 10, 2011 - 7:41 AM

Republican leaders across Minnesota aren't just locked in an intense budget struggle with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. They are tussling with each other, too.

Before and since the state government shutdown began, GOP leaders have insisted that rank-and-file legislators not give an inch on new government spending. Lined up behind the leadership is a fervent group of freshmen lawmakers emboldened by the fact that their party is in the majority at the Capitol for the first time in decades.

But others in the Republican ranks are arguing quietly for ways to reach a budget agreement with the governor -- partly out of fear that a rigid stand could cost them their newfound political clout as early as next year's elections.

"There's no question there's a clash of political cultures between many of the Tea Party members and the old guard," said former Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad.

The divisions don't stop there. Even among GOP freshmen, there are both adamant voices against new spending, and others saying their constituents are paying too high a price during the shutdown and that a compromise must be found.

"We're hurting a lot of people," said freshman Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea. "This is a whole lot more than just closing a few parks on the weekend." Both sides, he said, "need to put everything back on the table" in budget negotiations. "There are just a lot of different things that we can do to bridge this gap."

Republican Sen. Mike Parry of Waseca, on the other side, is not only calling for no compromise, he recently called for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to resign.

For some, the fierce debate within the party is a long-overdue reckoning.

"What we are going to have is a broader discussion about the proper size and role of government," said House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. "People ain't gonna say 'raise my taxes and grow government.' And that's the good that can come out of this shutdown."

"This is a defining moment for the no-new-taxes faction of the GOP," said Sarah Janecek, a longtime Republican consultant.

Long-simmering divide

Many Republican leaders and activists see the state at a crossroads. Either they stand firm against government costs, they say, or agree to more spending and watch years of campaign rhetoric vaporize in their first difficult test.

In March, state party chairman Tony Sutton told party leaders that Republicans would pass a balanced budget "and put the shutdown on the shoulders of Governor Dayton."

However, a handful of Republican legislators are continuing to toss around ideas like expanded gambling, cigarette fee hikes and other forms of non-tax revenue to edge closer to a budget deal.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, continues to meet with Dayton and some state commissioners, as he has for weeks, talking about tax reform. He said he doesn't want to increase the tax burden or grow the government.

But, Howe said, "I would hope that we could operate and represent our constituents in an atmosphere that is free from intimidation and bullying." Asked if he thought lawmakers were being intimidated or bullied, he said: "I will leave that up to others to judge."

Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents many of the state's largest companies, worked behind the scenes for months to help broker a budget deal but ran into a seemingly insurmountable roadblock.

"The challenge is obvious," he said. "The new conservatives in the House and Senate don't want to spend more."

House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch appeared to briefly break with the "not-a-penny-more" faction last week when they offered a deal that would have included the sale of tobacco bonds. Dayton rejected that offer, and Zellers and Koch have reverted to their earlier stance.

Republicans considering compromise are getting hammered from an unlikely corner -- conservative talk radio.

Tom Emmer, the GOP's gubernatorial nominee last fall, recently issued an unyielding command on his new show: "Stop compromising."

Emmer said the GOP initially pledged to hold the line on spending, but then offered a budget that was $4 billion higher. "You can't be everything to everybody," he said.

When a bipartisan group of former state officials convened by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale stepped into the impasse last week, recommending steeper budget cuts and some new taxes, the GOP's Sutton denounced the move.

"That generation of politicians created this mess," he charged.

'Government stops'

Dayton said he has seen the GOP divide play out throughout the budget negotiations. Republican leaders, he said, appear open to compromise in private, but worry about getting hammered by non-elected party officials and the GOP freshmen who will not budge.

"It is astonishing to me, but it is very real," Dayton said in an interview. In a democracy, he said, "the only way you function is you compromise. Otherwise, government stops ... the consequences of not compromising become severe enough that you compromise."

That point highlights the potential peril for Republicans.

State Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, one of the more independent voices in his caucus, said he does not want to keep putting off the hard choices.

"Let's say we roll over on new revenue and put off decisions we should have made years ago," said Abeler, who chairs the House health and human services finance committee. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty "didn't do hard decisions we should have, and here we are," Abeler said.

Some Republicans fret that time may not be on their side.

Minnesota voters stunned many political observers last November by electing the first DFL governor in 20 years and handing control of the state House and Senate to Republicans for the first time in 40 years.

All told, 48 seats changed hands, many in swing districts and by slim margins.

Now the 2012 elections are just 16 months away.

Dean, the House majority leader, said that ultimately, GOP legislators understand the political realities.

"We don't have Tom Emmer across the street," he said. "We have Mark Dayton. We understand that. We understand we are going to get to a different place at the end of this of thing."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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