Legislators prep for session, budget shortfall

Minnesota’s $1.2 billion budget shortfall looms over the upcoming legislative session.

by Mike Mullen and Cali Owings

After 18 terms and 37 years, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, is at a low point. âÄúIâÄôve never been so âÄî combination of pessimistic or just canâÄôt figure out whatâÄôs possibly going to happen,âÄù Kahn said. The legislative veteran echoed the frustration and distress of some of her colleagues as the stateâÄôs $1.2 billion budget shortfall looms over the upcoming legislative session, which begins Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said the current deficit, coupled with âÄúbetween a 5 and 8 billion challengeâÄù in the coming years, will lead to a particularly lean year for state programs. âÄúNot much of the news is very positive,âÄù Pogemiller said. âÄúBut our major task is to figure out a way to stabilize this budget, and thatâÄôs what weâÄôre going to need to do.âÄù Pogemiller, Kahn and other legislators said a large number of state-funded programs, including the University of Minnesota, could face cuts or reductions. âÄúI think youâÄôre looking at roughly a $20 million cut for the University,âÄù Pogemiller said. âÄúAnd I think thatâÄôs not good news. But itâÄôs certainly not as bad as it could be.âÄù Kahn said the much-debated bonding bill will be crucial in determining how much funding the University should expect. Among the UniversityâÄôs desired projects is a new $80 million physics and nanotechnology building, with the University picking up $26.7 million of the tab and the state paying for the rest. âÄúThe chances of the physics [and] nanotechnology building getting funded is really pretty high,âÄù Kahn said. Kahn was less confident about a $34.5 million renovation for Folwell Hall. Though she was âÄúfairly sureâÄù the renovation would appear in both the House and the Senate bills, she feared a potential line-item veto from Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty is expected to submit his budget proposals in the coming weeks. The session will be complicated by an ongoing game of political musical chairs. In his final year as governor, Pawlenty has positioned himself for a run at national office with recent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as a Feb. 1 column on the Poltico Web site accusing the federal government of âÄúrunning the largest Ponzi scheme our country has ever seen.âÄù Meanwhile, a number of sitting state legislators have announced their candidacies for governor. âÄúClearly, the governor is multitasking,âÄù Pogemiller said. âÄúAnd I hope that he can do that successfully, because he absolutely needs to pay attention to this budget crisis at the state level. And same for those legislators that have chosen to put their name in the hat for governor. They need to focus on the job they have right now.âÄù Rep. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, said the situation reminded him of the 2002 session, when Pawlenty, then majority leader of the House of Representatives, was running for governor against Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. Bly said the inability of Palwenty, Moe and then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to compromise on budget issues helped lead to the current financial crisis. âÄúNobody wanted to give anybody any successes,âÄù Bly recalled. âÄúSo weâÄôre facing this again, where we have people who should be working together to solve problems are going to be running against each other for governor, looking to score political points, possibly. I mean, I hope thatâÄôs not the case, but I think itâÄôs difficult not to see that happen.âÄù Aside from cutting spending, state lawmakers are looking for new ways to generate revenue. While DFL legislators decried PawlentyâÄôs insistence on not raising taxes, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the Republican lead on higher education in the House committee, is considering ways to attract businesses to Minnesota. âÄúWe want the state to come out of this recession,âÄù Nornes said, âÄúand that means we have to make sure we have people employed and make sure that people want to come to this state and stay in this state. And that includes not only people, but business.âÄù Nornes said that in the face of a difficult session, he was âÄútrying to be positive.âÄù The same could not be said for Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. After endorsing the current Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, as the next governor, Pappas fingered Pawlenty as the sticking point for DFL legislative proposals. âÄúThatâÄôs the frustration is that the governor is the outlier, but heâÄôs the third branch,âÄù Pappas said. âÄúHe has that power all to himself. The governor abuses power, and heâÄôs impossible to negotiate with on the big-picture stuff, taxing and the budget. IâÄôm not optimistic that we can get anything done this year. I just think we can make the painful decisions.âÄù