Some predict lawmakers will need special sessionHere's what is making news in and around the state Capitol this week.
By: Scott Wente and Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau
Here's what is making news in and around the state Capitol this week:
The relationship between Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Democrat-led Legislature has been acrimonious at times in recent years.
Still, the $5.3 billion budget deficit will force Pawlenty and the Legislature to work together in 2009, said Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.
“I think it’s actually to a point where it’s so tough we’re going to have no choice but to get along and make it work,” he said.
However, Howes said he expects Pawlenty and the Legislature won’t reach a deal before the end of the regular session, in May, and a special session will be needed next summer.
State not alone
Most other states join Minnesota in fighting financial woes.
The National Governors' Association and National Association of State Budget Officers report that in 2009, actual state spending will decline for the first time since 1983. The 0.1 percent decline does not seem like much, but it contrasts with a 5.3 percent growth in 2008, which still was a point lower than the recent-year average.
Make busing efficient
Lawmakers may consider ways to improve school transportation, making student busing more efficient and less costly for school districts.
Senate Education Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said public and private bus services exist in some areas of the state.
“There’s some overlap,” Stumpf said.
The northwestern Minnesota lawmaker said North Dakota’s student transportation system has been streamlined, but Minnesota’s hasn’t.
Rural school districts should see education changes from the 2009 Legislature.
Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, said lawmakers may look at ways to encourage small, rural districts to combine some administrative services. For instance, he said, a few small districts could share a superintendent or a business office, rather than using their own. Skogen said such a change would only start with a pilot program and would not be mandated.
There would be resistance, he said.
“There are some jobs that possibly could be lost over it,” Skogen said. “There are some territorial things that occur in school districts. They get nervous about doing too much sharing.”
Boost pay for energy
Lawmakers can build on renewable energy laws of recent years without affecting the state’s deficit-plagued general fund, one incoming lawmaker said.
Rep.-elect Andrew Falk, a farmer and renewable energy developer, said more incentives are needed to encourage local renewable energy projects. Falk said he would push for 2009 legislation similar to a 2008 bill setting a “fair price” to be paid for excess energy generated by small renewable energy systems, such as a residential wind turbine, and sold to a local utility.
Falk, DFL-Murdock, said that would provide increased payments to the person generating the renewable energy. Utilities may or may not pay more, he said, noting they could save money by buying locally generated renewable energy rather than acquiring it from energy plants farther away.
Wanted: common sense
Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, said a certain group of lawmakers must rise to the occasion and fight Minnesota's budget problems.
"There is a bunch of people I call the common sense caucus," he said. "This is not time for thinking of yourself as a legislator and your ambitions. It is time to think of the state, and that goes for the parties, too."
Feds could help
If President-elect Barack Obama’s administration is really serious about jump-starting the economy, it should consider boosting federal special education funding to states, Senate Education Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said.
The federal government has not funded special education programs at the rate stated in law, so states must use more of their tax revenue to make up the difference. More federal aid would free up state money, he said.
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said federal funds for Medicaid programs also would help cut state spending.
"We should not turn down these possible federal investments that could help get our economy back on track," Lourey said.
Hitting the road
Legislative leaders say they will hold committee hearings around Minnesota to get public input as they begin to form a two-year budget.
"You get a better feel for what people will accept and not accept..." said Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. "The only way we can do this is something that does not look partisan."
Langseth, often one of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's harshest critics, said Democrats who control the Legislature cannot just take the governor's budget proposal around the state and bash it.
Renewables on table
Renewable energy will be on the minds of some lawmakers during the upcoming session.
Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, said he would like to see Minnesota offer incentives to encourage use of solar-powered energy equipment. He suggested pilot projects that would use a special renewable energy development fund.
“I think it’s certainly an area we will continue in,” he said of the Legislature’s interest in renewable energy.
New urban-rural divide?
Massive budget cuts could expose a new divide between urban and rural lawmakers, Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, predicted.
State spending cuts to schools and nursing homes – two oft-protected budget areas, but still possible targets for budget cuts – would hurt rural communities more than metropolitan cities, Skogen said. In many small towns, those are the two largest employers.
Democratic legislative leaders often say Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's apparent presidential ambitions can get in his way of governing Minnesota.
But even less partisan lawmakers think that, too.
"I do believe he has presidential aspirations," Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said. "I do not begrudge that at all. But I do believe he approaches issues from a little different perspective. I do think that is the mystery card here.
"He has to be a little more pure on the Republican issues than maybe even he would like to be."
Not much will be discussed in the 2009 legislative session other than money, but given the recent U.S. Senate recount, Rep. Kent Eken thinks he has a proposal that may get some traction.
The Twin Valley Democrat plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to require that an election winner receive the majority of the vote. Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not win a majority in either of his governor races, in part because Independence Party candidates siphoned off some votes from the two major candidates.
While the amendment would not specify how a majority would be ensured, one way is to only allow the top two voter-getters from the primary election to be in the general election.
Eken said even Pawlenty should like the idea because an official who received a majority of the votes would be in a stronger political position.
"That would give him more leverage in the process," Eken said. "He could speak with greater authority."
Legislators are used to interest groups approaching them, asking for money.
That cannot happen now, with the state facing a huge budget deficit, Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook said.
"Don't come to me to ask that your little piece of the state budget be protected," Bakk told interest groups. "Come to me with ideas, how we can do things differently."