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Lawmakers Cast Blame For Unfinished Business
By Laura McCallum , Minnesota Public Radio
May 21, 2001

The 2001 Legislature will adjourn by midnight Monday without a major budget agreement. Lawmakers could leave the Capitol without sending the governor any sweeping spending or tax bills. Under any circumstances, a special session has become a certainty. While unfinished business has prompted several special sessions in recent memory, no one can at the Capitol can recall having as much left to address as lawmakers face this year. And that situation has prompted a round of finger-pointing between Gov. Jesse Ventura and the Legislature.
Roger Moe
Sen. Majority Leader Roger Moe, shown during a two-hour Capitol broadcast of Midday, wanted negotiations on the tax bill to be done through the normal conference committee process instead of by a few key lawmakers. Listen to the broadcast online (Hour One | Hour Two).

Because all major work has been put off until a special session, Monday may have been the quietest last day of a regular session ever. The Legislature still hasn't passed a tax bill or funded state programs ranging from K-12 and higher education to nursing homes, prisons, welfare, and road projects. Gov. Jesse Ventura places the blame squarely on legislators. He says they've been at the Capitol since January, and haven't finished their work.

"There is no excuse for this. They were here for five months, and we as a administration were there and available to assist and do everything we could to help them move it along, but they chose not to," Ventura said.

Republican House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty sees the situation differently. "You know, with all due respect to the governor, getting his work done means more than delivering a state of the state address and dropping a budget on us in February and disappearing for three months" Pawlenty responded.

Pawlenty says Ventura should be careful about finger-pointing. Many House Republicans feel Ventura sold them out by delivering a budget that was lean on spending increases and heavy on tax cuts, and then later berating them for not compromising with Senate Democrats who wanted far more spending on education, health care and transportation. But Ventura says House Republicans suffer from a lack of leadership.

"They seem to have some sort of executive committee that leadership has to go get approval from. And to me, that's, you know, if you're elected to a position, then you ought to have the authority and the backbone to stand up and make decisions and take it back to your caucuses and say, this is what we've negotiated to, here's what's happening," Ventura said on MPR's Midday program.

Ventura refers to a structure put in place this year that gives a nine-member executive committee veto authority over House Speaker Steve Sviggum's decisions. The change was prompted by concerns from fiscal conservatives who felt Sviggum, R-Kenyon, gave up too much in final negotiations the past couple of years. Many Democrats say the structure has led to an unwillingness to engage in the typical give-and-take of negotiations. Rep. Lyn Carlson, DFL-Crystal and a nearly 30-year legislative veteran, says he's never seen a budget impasse like this. "The Republican caucus in the House just seems to be locked in without being willing to be flexible," he said.

House Republicans say they're holding firm to their principles, and believe the budget surplus should go back to taxpayers. The basic philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans is a major reason for the legislative meltdown, according to Gustavus Adolphus political scientist Chris Gilbert. He says it's not as simple as blaming the governor, the 201 legislators,or tripartisan government.

"The trouble is the politics that lurks within each of the three parts of those, and when you think about it, reforming a tax system is never easy, because it impacts so many different interests in so many different ways," Gilbert said. "And the way in which the Ventura plan began to structure what the House and the Senate had in mind, I think it was bound to cause difficulties."

Gilbert also faults the pace of the session, and says legislators got sidetracked on hot-button issues like concealed carry and abortion instead of focusing on budget matters.

Some lawmakers say the entire session was mismanaged. Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, cites a line-up of new committee chairs in the Senate, late committee deadlines, a delay in getting the Senate tax bill to the floor and pushed-back budget targets.

"I mean, if you were to grade us, you'd have to give us an incomplete, if you were to give us a grade, it'd definitely be a D," Day said. "Even in January and February, we weren't moving like we normally move, so time management has been just a problem this entire session."

Legislative leaders still don't have a plan for fixing what everyone agrees is a mess. Ventura will have to call a special session, but won't say when - and hints he may wait until the state is on the verge of a government shutdown July 1.