Capitol Update for February 29, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“In the political world of checks and balances, where the three equal branches of government share power and keep each other in line, the veto override is the equivalent of a body check. If it connects, it can really sting.”
– David Maeda
Session Weekly
April 28, 2000

Last Monday’s vote by the Legislature to override Governor Pawlenty’s veto of the $6.6 billion transportation bill was truly historic. MEP and our ragtag team of transit supporters took great delight in the passage of the transit portions of the bill. This will provide a much needed dedicated source of revenue to make smart investments in buses and trains, reducing global warming pollution and smog. On the other hand, for the governor who fashions himself an amateur hockey player it was no doubt a stinging body check.

To understand how stinging this override was one needs a little historical perspective. The above quote is from a House of Representatives nonpartisan staff reporter for their weekly publication and it was written for an article during the many vetoes of the Ventura years. Former Governor Ventura’s administration was definitely an anomaly for many reasons, including the number of veto overrides that were successful. The independent governor was never really known for his ability to work with the Legislature and mostly resorted to his old All-Star wrestling script by taunting them with his vetoes. He relished using a red veto stamp that look like pig. During those four strange years, Ventura was body slammed with a record eight veto overrides from the Legislature.

Outside of the odd anomaly of the Ventura administration, the veto override has been an extremely rare occurrence in the Minnesota Legislature since the end of World War II. Besides those Ventura veto overrides, there have been only four other veto overrides prior to this year’s transportation bill. Two of them occurred during the Quie administration with the brutal budget crisis of the early 1980s. Another one occurred way back in 1949 under Governor Luther Youngdahl, the great Lutheran anti-gambling crusader. The most interesting one of the four that compares with the Pawlenty override occurred in 1967.

That year the Legislature wanted to join the majority of other states in the nation by imposing a sales tax which would be used to provide property tax relief. During the regular session, the Legislature passed a three cent sales tax which was opposed by Republican Governor Harold LeVander. Interestingly LeVander and Pawlenty are both attorneys who hail from South St. Paul and the similarities don’t stop there. LeVander was quite confident that the Legislature would never override his veto. In fact, during the regular session in 1967 the Legislature attempted to override a veto of the sales tax and it failed by one vote in the Senate.

After the 1967 Legislature failed to pass the bill, the Governor confidently called them back into special session expecting them to negotiate. The Legislature again passed a sales tax bill that didn’t meet LeVander’s approval and which he confidently vetoed again. No evidence exists as to whether LeVander taunted the Legislature by using a “taxpayer protection pen” like Pawlenty did when vetoing the bill. All observers were stunned when the Legislature overrode LeVander by a razor thin margin of three votes in the House and two votes in the Senate. Many historians say LeVander never recovered from this defeat and surprised many two years later when he chose not run for reelection after only serving one term.

Pawlenty’s veto override was equally as intriguing and will go down in history as a stunning defeat for this administration. After several years of gridlock on the passage of a comprehensive transportation bill which included increased investments from gas taxes, the Legislature was closer than they ever were last year to passing such a bill. Last year the transportation bill passed the Legislature with more than enough votes in both the House and Senate on final passage to sustain a veto. The governor was able to convince enough of his Republicans allies in the House to switch their votes on the veto override attempt last year, sustaining his veto. Therefore, he was quite confident in taking down this year’s attempt to pass a transportation bill with the veto.

As reported last week, there were six courageous Republicans who voted for a compromise package which MEP supported. Those six individuals were:

Jim Abeler (Anoka)
Ron Erhardt (Edina)
Rod Hamilton (Mountain Lake)
Bud Heidgerken (Freeport)
Neil Peterson (Bloomington)
Kathy Tingelstad (Andover)

Unfortunately, two Democrats voted against the package leaving the override potentially one vote short of the 90 votes needed. One of those DFL votes was just odd and he quickly pledged to vote for the override. The other DFL no vote, Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba (DFL-Long Prairie), had consistently throughout her legislative service opposed a gas tax. It is always much more comforting to be just one of six who has overridden the governor at 91 than it is to be the singular crucial vote that got to 90.

As the override vote approached in the House on Monday, there was intense intrigue as to whether Speaker Anderson Kelliher could patch together a fragile bipartisan coalition and deliver the needed 90 or the preferable 91 votes for the override. The Capitol halls on Monday were filled with union road workers, contractors, local government officials, transit/environmental advocates and many others who were pleading for the Legislature to adopt this package through an override. The tension in the halls grew through several hours of debate. The governor was out of town at the National Governor’s Conference, but Republican leaders working the press in his stead were confident he would never be overridden.

Things looked brighter when Rep. Abeler gave a passionate speech about doing what is right regardless of the consequences to his election. He made it very clear that being a Representative wasn’t his career, but he was called to do what was right and that meant overriding his governor’s veto. None of the other legislators who were needed to get to 90 gave any indication during the debate where they stood. Therefore, when the vote was called by Speaker Anderson Kelliher, you could have cut the tension with a knife it was so thick.

The House voting board quickly reached the needed 90 votes and the speaker in her excitement closed the board out so fast that she forgot to vote! When the board flashed 90 yes votes the halls of the Capitol erupted in jubilation, and you saw strange sites like burly construction workers congratulating tree-hugging environmentalists. For a while the veteran lobbyists were scrambling to find which of the Republican votes we had lost. Once the tally sheets were released we realized it was the Speaker herself who forgot to vote, but as allowed by the rules she switched her vote from absent to a yes before the vote total was announced. Therefore, the override vote was the solid 91 members she was seeking.

The above six Republicans have become folk heroes in the transportation and transit communities. Unfortunately, they have been the target of much anger from the governor, fellow House Republicans and the anti-tax crowd who would rather waste their money on foreign oil in traffic congestion than paying for American jobs. Therefore, if you know any of the six Representatives, don’t be afraid to send them a positive word. They definitely deserve it and we are very thankful for passing our second major initiative in just over two weeks of legislative session. It was also good to hear from our partners in this effort that the environmental community brought much-needed assets to the table to help create a success this year where there was none last year.

The battle for more money for transit has not ended with the override. The provisions of the bill require that there be a joint powers agreement between the metropolitan counties before the transit dedication can go into effect. The vocal few anti-tax crusaders have started an aggressive lobbying effort against the county boards in the seven counties. Therefore, we still have our work cut out for us before the promise of a well-designed efficient transit system can be realized.

A lot of other news from this week will be addressed in future reports. The Transportation Commissioner was denied confirmation and a huge budget deficit crisis is upon us again. Further, MEP is aggressively working on several other pieces of legislation where we have seen significant movement this week around clean car standards, limits on global warming pollution and investments in our great outdoors. Nonetheless, the focus had to be on the Pawlenty transportation override, because it was history in itself and will set the tone for the remainder of the session.

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