Pawlenty budget takes a beating from both sides
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators roughed up Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal in the past week.
As Democratic-controlled legislative committees began to look at the GOP governor's budget, some Republicans joined Democrats in criticizing it. A few Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers were strongly critical of Pawlenty's efforts to build a budget in deficit times, while others said they were holding their opinions until they hear from the public in a series of meetings around the state later this month.
How lawmakers deal with Pawlenty's budget proposal is key to the 2009 legislative session.
Legislators' main job is to pass a two-year budget that will spend about $33 billion. That is hampered by an economic recession that likely will result in a $7 billion state budget shortfall.
Pawlenty released his budget proposal late last month, cutting programs, shifting some school payments into the next budget, removing people from state health programs, lowering state payments to local governments and proposing what amounts to borrowing money to pay off construction loans. His plan also called for a variety of business tax cuts, including chopping the corporate income tax in half, on the theory that the move would influence businesses to spend money and keep workers employed.
He demanded that the budget be balanced without raising taxes, and he proposed to raise few fees, all the while increasing public school spending.
The governor is not surprised at the criticism.
"Legislators are treating his budget as he expected," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "Legislators are critical of it, but haven't offered any plans of their own. They are doing what they typically do, just parade the budget around and state that it is lacking and conclude that the state should raise taxes -- and we think that is the wrong approach."
The weight of their job is just settling in on lawmakers, who have the toughest fiscal task in the state's history.
"I can feel the angst around this table," Senate Tax Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said during a Thursday committee meeting.
Legislative meetings with Pawlenty administration officials generally have been cordial, but differences of opinion are more than obvious.
Pawlenty's budget pulls a political fast one on Democrats. He calls for increased public school funding during this budget deficit time, taking the education funding issue away from Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, told Pawlenty's finance commissioner Tom Hanson that education has be cut along with other state spending. With public education 40 percent of the state budget, Pogemiller said, there is no choice.
"It is not in the best interest of this state to do this with bubble gum," Pogemiller said of the Pawlenty budget.
McClung said Pawlenty doesn't understand Pogemiller and other Democrats' thoughts on education funding.
"We are surprised that Democrats are proposing cuts to K-12 education," McClung said. "The governor has said that this is a priority-based budget. The priorities include the military, veterans, public safety, K-12 education and job growth."
Bakk, who eyes the governor's job, accused Pawlenty of featuring the politically popular no-new-tax policy and increased education funding, even if neither is possible.
"This is a cute sound bite," Bakk said.
Hanson, however, said the governor feels strongly about education funding and not raising taxes, promising that will be Pawlenty's position when he refines his budget proposal next month.
Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, like Pawlenty a conservative Republican, criticized the governor's business tax cut package as not providing enough immediate help to bring them out of the recession.
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, was critical of Pawlenty's proposal to chop state funds due cities, counties and townships.
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said Pawlenty spends too much time emphasizing lower taxes.
"When we went through these years of very high taxes, we had a very strong economy," Langseth said. "Now the entire emphasis is lower taxes and our economy is falling apart."
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, complained that Pawlenty's plan would remove 113,000 Minnesotans from state-sponsored health insurance programs and force them to use expensive emergency room care.
On the other hand, Assistant Senate Minority Leader Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, said the health and human services budget is rising dramatically, and money needs to be cut to balance the budget. Democrats have yet to offer their own plan to counter Pawlenty's.
"They have so far only criticized," Fischbach said.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said it is premature to make comments like Pogemiller's about cutting education spending.
Kelliher emphasized that meetings later this month will seek public ideas for budget solutions, and she does not want to cement her opinions until after that.
The meetings will feature a combination of senior lawmakers and those representing the area where each meeting is held. Nonpartisan legislative staffers will talk about the budget, Kelliher said, then lawmakers will listen to the public's ideas.
Early next month, a new economic report is due, which widely is expected to show a deficit of about $7 billion, up more than $2 billion from a December projection. After that, Pawlenty will revise his budget plan, which will be the basis for lawmakers.
The state constitution requires the budget to be balanced.