Anticipation high for legislative session

The Minnesota Fantasy Legislature group is eagerly awaiting this year’s session.

As lawmakers across the state prepare for the start of the 2008 legislative session today at noon, dozens of Minnesota Fantasy Legislature participants are eagerly awaiting the session kickoff as well.

Yesterday, MFL – a sort of “fantasy football” for the intellectual set – conducted its annual draft, where players created virtual teams comprised of real Minnesota legislators.

Much like any fantasy sports game, MFL players score points when their team members make “plays” in real life. In MFL, that can mean scoring points when one of your legislators files a bill, when the bill is discussed in a committee hearing or when it is passed by the other chamber of legislature.

MFL creator and Minnesota Public Radio reporter Bob Collins said he came up with the fantasy league idea a year ago after seeing what he called a loss of interest in Minnesota politics. Michael Marchio, a senior editorial board member at the Daily, is the current MFL commissioner.

Collins called MFL a “journalistic vehicle” that adapted information to the way people consume it, rather than the other way around.

He said the other half of why he created MFL is that he’s “always been pretty disappointed with mainstream media coverage of the legislature,” including the tendency to focus on just a few major players and issues during the session.

He said MFL gives players the opportunity to better understand how the legislative process works, giving people a look at the whole picture.

Local representative Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she’s aware of MFL, but didn’t keep tabs on how she fared in last year’s inaugural season.

“Life is difficult enough without worrying about where I am in the Minnesota Fantasy Legislature,” she said with a laugh.

Kahn did say, however, that MFL had the potential to get people engaged in the legislative process.

“Anything that gets people interested,” she said, “has my wholehearted support.”

While the MFL players get ready for the session, lawmakers and University officials continue to discuss their legislative priorities.

The Minnesota Legislature works on a two-year schedule, with 120 days permitted each biennium, under state law. The first half of the 2007-08 biennium lasted 75 days, which means 45 days are now allotted for the 2008 session.

Kahn and majority leader Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, both of whom represent the University area, have talked extensively about bonding and transportation bills, which Kahn calls “the biggest issues” to be addressed.

“We absolutely have to have a bonding bill this year,” Kahn said.

Pogemiller referred to the bonding bill, which would allocate money for capital investments, as a “jobs bill,” and said he expected between one third and one half of the investment bill to be applied to higher education.

That would encompass many of the University’s 2008 capital requests, he said, probably including funds for the construction of the new Bell Museum of Natural History in St. Paul – something Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not include in his bonding plan released last month.

In a Jan. 23 legislative briefing event, University leaders, including University President Bob Bruininks, emphasized their legislative goals; among them a $225.5 million capital request from the state, $100 million of which would be devoted to the University’s general maintenance fund.

Pawlenty’s plan calls for $40 million of the general maintenance request to be fulfilled, and Pogemiller said the bonding bill would likely include more than that, though likely not the full $100 million.

Last month, Bruininks called the University’s capital request ambitious, but “bare-bones to get the job done.”

In terms of a comprehensive transportation package, this year’s transportation bill will be “about the same contour of last year’s bill,” Pogemiller said, adding that a statewide gas tax and metrowide sales tax were vital.

Similarly, Kahn said there is no way to adequately address the issue of transportation infrastructure without a gas tax increase.

“The first step is to see what we can negotiate with the governor,” she said.

Both Kahn and Pogemiller pointed to solving the budget deficit as one of the biggest foreseeable challenges of the session.

Given the packed schedule, even those who didn’t get in on this year’s MFL have reason to be interested.

“I think this should be a pretty good session, hopefully, for the University,” Pogemiller said.