Wasting time at the Legislature

Lawmakers failed on the issues that matter the most.

The Legislature formally adjourned last week, but legislators might as well have closed shop and gone home months ago. Legislation for the most pressing issues, including a lingering budget deficit, future stadiums for the Twins and Vikings and a bonding bill to finance public investments were nowhere to be found. Even a committed optimist would find it hard to deny that the 2004 session was little more than partisan squabbling and election- year politicking.

The chattering classes will have months to debate the reasons behind the most unproductive legislative session in recent memory. But voters across the state will begin to feel the consequences in short order.

The failure to pass a bonding bill leaves a host of current and future construction projects in the lurch. That translates into more bad news for local and city governments already feeling the pinch from last year’s cuts in aid to local government. Part of that money would have helped New Brighton, Minn., as it seeks to encourage the medical device maker, Medtronic, to expand its operations into that community.

The inaction also jeopardizes more than $100 million in federal matching money for the Northstar commuter rail line. Closer to home, renovation of the University’s Kolthoff Hall and other deteriorating campus buildings will be put on hold.

Agreement on a plan to eliminate the state’s $160 million deficit was similarly elusive. Republican and DFL lawmakers missed a golden opportunity to tackle this year’s miniscule shortfall and forestall an even bigger one next year. They have effectively given Gov. Tim Pawlenty the freedom to erase the deficit with the kind of accounting gimmicks that led one major bond house to downgrade the state’s triple “A” bond rating last year. Pawlenty began by raiding the trust established to fund health care for low- and middle-income families, a move for which legislators have no one to blame but themselves.

Issues such as public investments, the state’s deficit, Twins and Vikings stadiums, and the expansion of gambling will not solve themselves. They need real leadership and willingness to compromise. Minnesota lawmakers should revisit those lessons before their next session.