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Legislative Session Sputters to Halt
From Staff Reports
May 22, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Session 2001.

The 2001 legislative session gaveled to a close at midnight with action on only one of eight major spending measures and no tax bill. Lawmakers are resuming negotiations in preparation for a special session, which Gov. Jesse Ventura is expected to call to avoid a government shutdown on July 1.
On MPR's Midday Monday, Gov. Ventura said he may not call a special session until the state is on the verge of a government shutdown. The two-hour broadcast from the Capitol also featured several legislative leaders. Listen online to the show (Hour One | Hour Two). Ventura will be a guest again Tuesday during the first hour of Midday at 11 a.m.


WITH SECONDS TO SPARE, the Senate voted 47-18 to pass an early childhood funding bill before the constitutional adjournment deadline. Minutes earlier, the House passed the measure on a 69-65 vote. The $600 million spending bill provides a $9 million increase in child-care funding from federal sources, but no increase in state revenues. With no action on other major budget bills, Gov. Ventura now acknowledges a special session is the only way to keep government running into the next fiscal year. Ventura isn't saying when he'll re-convene the Legislature; he's holding out the possibility of making lawmakers sweat until the last minute.

"It would certainly put them under the gun, wouldn't it?" Ventura said.

But legislative leaders in both chambers say their preference is to meet sooner rather than later. Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says he hopes lawmakers can strike a budget compromise and complete their work by the end of May. And he says part of the pressure comes from Ventura's own cabinet.

The tax bill is expected to abolish the state-mandated general education levy, resulting in a sharp drop in school property taxes. The Senate would also tweak property-tax rates to shift relief to mid-valued homes. The House would target relief to higher-valued homes, apartments, and commercial property.

Speaker Steve Sviggum says the property-tax debate is the crux of the current deadlock. He says once the two sides resolve that dispute, spending targets for education, health and human services, and state agencies will fall into place. Sviggum says with a global agreement in hand, any special session would be short.

"Any session we have would be one day. Obviously the bills would have to be in agreement that there be no amendments offered to the bills when they come in," he said.

In the meantime, interest groups and stakeholders still don't know how their policy and funding proposals will fare, and worse, they don't know when they will know.


The Legislature did pass one major policy bill before adjournment. The Energy Security and Reliability Act aims to avert a projected energy shortage by streamlining power-plant and power-line construction. The bill includes provisions for conservation and renewable energy sources, but some environmentalists say it doesn't go far enough.

House sponsor Ken Wolf, R-Burnsville, says the final bill more closely resembles the House approach, with an emphasis on easing the process for building more energy infrastructure in the state, and a statewide energy plan with recommendations for the state's long-term energy production goals. The bill passed the House 98-35.

Like the House, the Senate had sought to streamline the process, but also tried to require utilities to generate 10 percent renewable energy - such as wind, solar and biomass - by the year 2015. The compromise in the final bill encourages utilities to make a "good faith effort" to reach the same 10-percent goal, but with no requirement to do so.


Senate author DFLer Jim Metzen says the final bill, which passed the Senate in a unanimous vote, didn't go far enough, but he says it's a good beginning. "I think it's a pretty good start to energy crisis that could develop if we don't take some of these actions and we're not going to end up being a California. We want to keep the lights on in Minnesota."

John Dunlop, a lobbyist for the American Wind Energy Association says the Legislature missed an opportunity to invest in and expand the state's clean energy market. "Because it is piecemeal, it depends on what each individual utility does with this green market aspect, there's no teeth in meeting the statewide objectives as they're referred to in the bill," he said."

The adopted energy bill does support a "green market" by requiring utilities to offer customers at least once a year, the choice to have some of their energy come from renewable sources. The green pricing provision pleases environmentalists, as does a provision to increase conservation spending for low income rate payers to help them insulate their homes and replace inefficient appliances.


But for the most part, Session 2001 will be known more for what didn't happen, than what did. And for that, Gov Jesse Ventura places the blame squarely on legislators. "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.

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.

Minnesota Public Radio reporters Laura McCallum, Michael Khoo, and Marisa Helms contributed to this report.