Legislators to Pawlenty: Cut the state budget yourself

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2009 - 6:29 PM

The governor had asked members of both parties for ideas as he prepares to balance the state budget on his own, a request that has fallen largely on unresponsive ears.

In a sign that wounds remain raw after a bruising legislative session, only a handful of lawmakers have formally responded to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's request for ideas to help him balance the state budget under his controversial use of the so-called unallotment process.

More than a week after Pawlenty sent a letter to legislators asking that they respond by Friday, only 13 of the state's 201 lawmakers had written back. Just eight of 133 DFLers had replied as of Friday, suggesting that many are troubled by the Republican governor's bold move to unilaterally make cuts to balance the budget and seem content to leave the choices -- and the political consequences -- to him.

"If I felt like it was a genuine request for input, I'd be happy to provide it," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, echoing other DFLers who complained that the governor had a five-month session to listen to ideas from legislators. "I don't think he's too interested in our views."

In most cases, the reaction mirrors the political feuding between DFLers and Republicans that occurred in the last days of the just-finished session. While Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate, said he could "almost picture ... a sneer" on Pawlenty's face as he wrote to legislators, Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, said the lack of letters from DFLers shows a continuing "lack of leadership" on how to solve the problem.

"We warned them" during the session, Dean said of the DFLers, that "we needed to actually put together bills that added up [to a balanced budget] at the end of the day ... there was never really a plan."

The session ended with projected spending exceeding anticipated revenues by an estimated $2.7 billion for the two-year budget period that will begin July 1. That is the gap that Pawlenty plans to plug, as each side blames the other for the problem.

Regular folks weigh in

While most legislators are giving him the silent treatment, Pawlenty said citizens are giving him an earful.

Since his administration created a website a week ago where citizens can send budget-balancing ideas, Pawlenty has talked publicly about the many people who have responded. As of Friday, according to a spokesman, more than 1,600 e-mails had been received -- and have included suggestions that Pawlenty reconsider state-authorized gambling as a way to raise money and even think about opening liquor stores on Sundays. Opening liquor stores, one e-mail said, would "create tax revenue. Create jobs. Save gas, as you wouldn't believe the [Minnesota] cars that line up at [Wisconsin] border towns waiting for the off sale [stores] to open on Sundays."

There also are indications that the governor's office is quietly getting feedback from some of the state's most influential interests, including the League of Minnesota Cities, which met Thursday with state Revenue Commissioner Ward Einess. Though the conversations were cordial, said Gary Carlson, a lobbyist for the league, it remained clear that cuts in state aid to cities are a likely target as Pawlenty weighs unallotment choices.

"Frankly, this is like going to your own execution and trying to give advice about which way you're going to take the pain," said Carlson, describing the talks.

The Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, representing 12,500 government workers, on Friday sent its own suggestions to the governor, which included banning out-of-state travel except travel taken to collect revenue. The union also recommended that state agencies cut their management staff to no more than 15 percent of total employees -- and released a spreadsheet showing that 10 mostly smaller agencies and boards, but including the state finance department, have workforces where more than 30 percent of the staff are managers and supervisors.

Legal fight ahead?

With the governor expected to announce his unallotment plan in June, there continues to be speculation that Pawlenty could face a legal challenge over what detractors see as a misuse of the unallotment power. State law gives a governor the authority to reduce spending where necessary if projected expenses for a budget period exceed anticipated revenue. But Pawlenty's announcement in the closing days of the session to use it to settle an impasse between the GOP governor and DFLers when the 2-year budget period hasn't even started was seen as an unprecedented use of the process.

"Someone's going to be filing a [law]suit, and arguing what's going on with unallotment," said House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.

Lawrence Massa, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, whose 147 members are likely to face significant budget cuts, said lawyers for the association are "reviewing the [state] statute" related to unallotment but have not made any conclusions regarding legal action. Massa said the association had in the past week informally talked to Tom Hanson, director of the state's office of management and budget, about pushing the bulk of any cuts to next year but said Hanson was noncommittal.

While Seifert and Dean said Republicans were informally meeting with the governor's office on unallotment issues, those DFLers who did formally answer Pawlenty's letter seemed to use the occasion to again criticize the governor's handling of the legislative session.

"You made the decision to veto the Legislature's final balanced budget proposal and now you are left with few choices," wrote House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller in a joint letter released Friday. "You will be held responsible for the repercussions of those actions."

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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