Capitol Update for April 25, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Men are elected to office, not parties.”
Willmar Tribune editorial, April 9, 1913

One would not know it with the partisan bickering that can break out in St. Paul these days, but Minnesota legislative elections were nonpartisan from 1914 until the 1970s.  Minnesota was the first and longest to be a nonpartisan legislature.  The nonpartisan election provision was adopted during the political era when progressives were realigning our parties’ structures.  In the 1912 election, Minnesota went strongly for the progressive candidacy of Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party.  Those progressive legislators were making their voices heard at the capitol in the 1913 legislative session.

The nonpartisan provision happened because of legislative negotiations that went awry between the Senate, House, and governor.  The old guard leaders in each of the bodies wanted to put a stop to the nonpartisan movement, but it was strongly supported by progressive and prohibition legislators (known as the “dry legislators”).  The dry legislators strongly supported local control of liquor laws and believed nonpartisan elections of city and local officials would result in more dry counties.  In 1913, the dry legislators had a bill that was destined to pass the Minnesota Senate.  The leading “wet” senator, A.J. Rockne of Goodhue, negotiated with House leadership that if he put a “poison bill” amendment on the bill requiring legislators to also have nonpartisan elections, the House would refuse to bring the bill up for consideration.  Unfortunately for Rockne and House leadership, the idea was wildly popular with news editors and the public.  In the end, the House was forced to adopt the proposal and as a result, Minnesota legislative elections were nonpartisan for the next half a century.

Negotiations within our state’s complex democratic institutions can also be a tricky business.  Knowing who the players are amongst the 201 legislators and developing the right package to bring a legislative session to a conclusion is always challenging.  Making the wrong move at the wrong time can bring these negotiations to a screeching halt and lead to gridlock.  The many special sessions over the last two decades are testaments to the difficulty of the legislative negotiation process in Minnesota.

The 2008 legislative session is at that very delicate time in the negotiations where leaders are struggling to find a global agreement to bring the legislative session to a positive end.  Among the delicate challenges for the folks in St. Paul is a billion-dollar budget deficit, several important transit projects that were vetoed earlier, and one state park the governor desires for his legacy.

Negotiations started in earnest at the end of last week with a coin flip.  Faced with the always difficult challenge of who should make the first offer, Governor Pawlenty and legislative leaders came up with a creative idea of settling the issue like a football game kickoff with a coin toss.  The Governor lost the flip – no word of whether he picked heads or tails.  Unfortunately, from the legislator’s perspective, the Governor’s first offer was anything but good sportsmanship.  He did offer to reduce the amount he used from the Health Care Access Account, but in return he required the legislature to come up with an additional $125 million in unspecified cuts over what is already on the table.  He also provided them with a six page memo of all the things he thinks are wrong with the legislative proposals contained in their budget balancing bills.

On Wednesday, the legislature asked the governor to provide them with specific recommendations for the additional $125 million in cuts he recommended.  On Thursday, the governor responded with a short letter telling the legislature to read his six page memo and figure it out.  I do not think they have reached the level of gridlock, but it is obvious to most observers that negotiations are getting tense.

The good news: the slowed negotiating gave the legislature time to work on some of our proposals to reduce global warming.  On Wednesday, the day after Earth Day, both the House and Senate took up the Green Solutions Act.  The goal of this legislation was to advance the concept of reducing global warming pollution by the development of a regional regulatory structure known as cap and trade.  Global warming pollution levels would be limited or capped.  Businesses that produce significant quantities of global warming pollution would be able to purchase permits within this limited amount and be allowed to buy or sell them if their needs change during the permitting period.  The bill creates a legislative working team to help in the development of a regional cap and trade system with our neighboring states and provides for some key studies on how to make the system effective.
In the Senate, the Green Solutions Act (SF2818) is authored by Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul).   The debate lasted only about one hour and she effectively fought off only two negative amendments offered by Sen. Ray Vandeveer (R- Forest Lake).  The bill was recommended to pass on a vote of 42 – 20.  The only Republican voting for the bill was Sen. Dennis Frederickson (New Ulm) and the only DFL member voting against the bill was Sen. David Tomassoni (Chisholm).

In the House, debate was much more contentious.  Rep. Kate Knuth (DFL – New Brighton) did an effective job in defending the Green Solutions Act (HF3195) on the House floor.  After more than three hours of debate, the bill finally passed on a vote of 91 – 38.  There were five DFL members who voted against the bill, all from the far north, and 14 Republicans voted for the bill.  There were 18 amendments offered.  All the contentious amendments failed by significant margins.  The high water mark for the anti-global warming folks was a 59 – 70 vote on an amendment.  Four amendments were put onto the bill, but all were with the author’s consent and did no harm to the bill.
The bill as originally introduced had several provisions that would have established a clear guideline for a future regional cap and trade system.  Unfortunately, the proposal was reduced through the committee process to simply some studies of the future system.  The studies will be helpful but certainly not the strong legislative statement we were looking for as we move forward to accomplish our state’s goals of reducing global warming pollution.  The bill should go to conference committee early next week and hopefully will be on the governor’s desk soon.

Also benefiting from the negotiation delays was our other global warming pollution initiative, the Clean Cars Standards Bill (SF 481/HF 863) authored by Sen. John Marty (DFL – Roseville) and Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park).  It has been bottled up in the committee process in both bodies, but the delay is giving us time to build momentum.  The major development this week was that the Minnesota Farmers Union, one of the state’s largest organizations of farmers, switched its position from opposing the Clean Car bill to outright support.  As reported earlier, the big oil/automaker corporate interests were spreading the misinformation that the Clean Car bill would harm the state’s burgeoning ethanol industry.  The fact of the matter is that the opposite is true, and our friends at the Minnesota Farmers Union saw through the deception to become now strong supporters of this critical global warming reduction legislation.

Hopefully, the legislative session will be bumpy enough to give the Green Team time to pass the Green Solutions Act and the Clean Cars bill and then wrap up smoothly.  The negotiations are at that stage where they are very delicate.  Nonetheless, the Green Team will continue to work hard to make sure the session will not end without passage of the important transit projects, park funding, and the last two key global warming pieces of our collaborative agenda: the Green Solutions Act and the Clean Cars Standards.

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