At the end of contentious session, lawmakers share a moment of unity
ST. PAUL -- There they were in the governor's office, frequently the scene of Democrat bashing, the Republican governor praising Democrats, and vice versa, over a new anti-drunken driving law.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty invited to a bill signing Democratic-Farmer-Laborite sponsors of a bill requiring repeat drunken drivers to use a device proving they are sober before driving. As he prepared to sign the bill into law, he said he was sorry to see the two retire from the Legislature. And the pair of DFL lawmakers, joined by Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, heaped praise on the governor and his staff on the issue.
Nothing better illustrated the end of the 86th Minnesota legislative session than Democrats and Republicans yukking it up Tuesday, relieved of the pressure to balance the state budget.
Lawmakers' work for the year ended just before 11 a.m. Monday, after an 11-hour special session to pass a bill balancing the nearly $3 billion state budget deficit. And while some legislative leaders traveled the state promoting one party or the other, the real party was in the governor's reception room where a few dozen people celebrated what Pawlenty said was a prime example of Republicans and Democrats working together.
The key feature of the bill is to require many people convicted of drunken driving to use a device that would prevent them from driving if they have been drinking. The driver would need to blow into the device, which would check for alcohol before the car could start.
Minnesota is the 47th state to require the devices.
The ignition interlock device will be required for those convicted of having blood alcohol content twice the legal level, or they will not be allowed to drive for one to six years. A driver using the interlock device, estimated to cost an offender $100 a month, would be able to return to the road as soon as it is installed.
Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing, DFL-Red Wing, said the Public Safety Department is working on ways to help people who cannot afford the lease fee. "We all have to go to work."
Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, said she was glad Pawlenty did not veto the measure, like he has other DFL-written bills.
"The ignition lock is a pathway to legal driving," she said, adding that it also makes the roads safer.
For Ritchie, the story is personal. His daughter died in an accident involving a drunken driver.
"They have made Minnesota a safer place," he said of those who pushed the bill.
Most provisions of the bill take effect next year.
But while the two sides held to a truce during the bill-signing ceremony, that was not the case as Democrats and Republicans traveled the state, separately, debriefing Minnesotans on the just-completed legislative session.
While Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis and other Democratic senators made stops, they were critical of Pawlenty. In Duluth, for instance, they said public works projects the governor vetoed would have added millions of dollars and nearly 200 jobs.
At the same time, Pawlenty issued a statement critical of Democrats' budgeting plans.
"DFL'ers who express concern about the size of the projected future budget deficit should look in the mirror," he said. "If they had passed my February budget recommendations and made the unallotment cuts permanent, the next budget's projected deficit would've dropped by more than half."
Even so, in talking to reporters after signing the ignition interlock bill, Pawlenty did not seem very concerned about talk of massive deficits in future budgets.
"The budget will be balanced because it has to be," he said, referring to a constitutional requirement.
Budget cuts he made last summer, ruled illegal by the state Supreme Court and then essentially ratified by the DFL-controlled Legislature, have caused no serious problems, he said, despite strong Democratic criticism.
The negotiated budget-balancing plan that passed Monday morning, with votes from both parties, shrinks the state's $30 billion, two-year budget by 9.3 percent, the governor said. He said that his legacy in Minnesota is one of changing: "Where Minnesota began to leave its traditional liberal tradition."
Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.