Pawlenty touts session highs; however, some worried about issues for 2009

ST. PAUL -- The 2008 Minnesota Legislature played out much like a hockey game. In the first period, Democrats who control the Legislature used a power play to smash through a $6.6 billion transportation funding bill, a construction projects fundi...

ST. PAUL -- The 2008 Minnesota Legislature played out much like a hockey game.

In the first period, Democrats who control the Legislature used a power play to smash through a $6.6 billion transportation funding bill, a construction projects funding measure and a proposed constitutional amendment to raise sales taxes to fund outdoors and arts projects.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty began the second period by sending some state construction projects to the penalty box, over Democrats' loud objections.

Otherwise, the period featured few body checks as lawmakers passed hundreds of bills (senators handled more than 100 in one day alone).

Like in a Minnesota Wild game, the third period featured a tight score and the fear of an overtime period. Democrats and Republicans went down to the wire, but finally balanced the state budget, lowered property taxes slightly, approved a health-care reform plan, increased education spending a bit, made sure nursing homes would get a little more money and took other mostly incremental actions.


And as the third period ended, so did an effort to make hockey the state sport when hockey fanatic Pawlenty vetoed a bill containing that provision.

The overtime - and potential of sudden death - was avoided during marathon talks over more than a week that ended in an almost surreal announcement Sunday afternoon, in which political adversaries Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller smiled and laughed, and gently verbally jabbed each other from time to time

Participants in the legislative game gave it differing scores.

"It was the most successful legislative session in the last decade," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said early Monday morning.

That was the message Democrats and Pawlenty delivered Monday as they flew around Minnesota -- separately -- touting the session's accomplishments.

But there are indications the 2009 session will not remain as peaceful when lawmakers return to St. Paul on Jan. 6.

On Monday, Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, talked about the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's desire to make more "investments."

"I think that is code for Democrats who want to raise taxes," Pawlenty said.


Talk about state finances was political for Pawlenty and Pogemiller, but more ominous for others.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, was not thrilled with this year's budget-balancing plan, given concerns that the state's finances will be worse in 2009, when the Legislature must pass a new two-year state budget.

"I would characterize it as the lull before the storm," he said of the 2008 session. "We probably can't claim great fiscal responsibility."

The Legislature faces a "huge problem" within months, he said.

"We satisfied a lot of interests and we are going to kind of limp along," he said of this session.

Worry about 2009 was bipartisan.

"The biggest successes were the things we stopped," Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

Garofalo said the Legislature is going to face even more severe budget problems in 2009, and the budget-balancing plan this year that relied heavily on reserve funds will make the situation worse.


One of the major things lawmakers did was balance the budget. The $935 million balancing act was accomplished by cutting many state agencies' budgets 4 percent, finding money in various funds throughout state government and closing a loophole that allowed some multi-national companies to avoid taxes.

Democrats and Pawlenty called a property tax package significant.

Pawlenty said that limiting how much local governments can raise property taxes and increasing a property tax refund program will reduce taxes $460 million.

Another $64 million will be given to cities and counties under the assumption that if they get more state money they will not need to raise taxes as much.

The governor predicted homeowners' property taxes will fall 20 percent to 30 percent because of actions taken in the last few days.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, was among most lawmakers to support the tax bill, even though he said he generally opposes state-imposed local property tax caps. However, he said property tax relief and new money for cities and counties made the property tax cap easier to swallow.

"It's harder to argue against them when you're getting additional aid," he said.

Even though in recent days, budget balancing and taxes gained much of the attention, it was the work that occurred early on that may have the most widespread impact.


"Projects all around the state would still be on the backburner if not for our override of the governor's veto of transportation funding," Pogemiller said. "Putting people back to work was our highest priority and the transportation bill alone has the possibility of creating 30,000 direct and indirect jobs a year. Our state's roads and bridges were crumbling but bold leadership by the House and Senate put us on track to safer roads and bridges."

Also early on, lawmakers passed a public works funding bill that, when combined with last-minute additions on Sunday, will spend $823 million on colleges, hockey arenas, passenger rail and other infrastructure needs.

And a constitutional amendment asking Minnesotans to approve a slight sales tax increase to fund outdoors and arts programs passed in February, with voters getting their chance to decide the issue in November.

Overall, Pawlenty and DFL leaders turned what began as a contentious session into one of at least a temporary peace and harmony, with some accomplishments everyone can claim.

Pawlenty may be a hockey fan, but he used another sports analogy to sum up the session: "It's the Capitol equivalent of catching a big walleye. It's a keeper."

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