Capitol Update for May 2, 2008

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed [sic] me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!… I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale.”
Captain Ahab
from Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I did promise that all of this year’s updates would be punctuated by a Minnesota history twist, but I could not pass up the imagery of comparing this session to the pursuit of the great white whale in Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ll give you an extra dose of Minnesota history next week as we approach Minnesota’s 150th statehood day on May 11th.The reference to the famed captain of the Pequod as it relates to this Minnesota legislative session was invoked by a senator, to remain unnamed, when describing the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller. Now I am only reporting the facts as I heard them and I will take issue with the comparison later on, but it was a vivid image that elicited many smiles when retold throughout the week. The comparison from the unnamed senator went something like this: “I feel like I’m on the Pequod with Captain Ahab so focused on getting that white whale in the governor’s office, he’ll take us all down to the deep and won’t blink an eye in the process.”

The reason this comparison seemed to strike a chord is that our good Senate Majority Leader has rightly earned a reputation as a fierce and determined competitor with the Republicans and in particular with Governor Pawlenty. Like Captain Ahab, Senator Pogemiller has been accused of having a singular dogged focus in his political pursuits. Frankly, that’s why many in the DFL Senate Caucus selected him to be their majority leader.

I would agree that partisanship continues to make arriving at a final resolution somewhat challenging in the Minnesota legislative process; however, I would take issue with the comparison. Senator Pogemiller and Speaker Margaret Anderson-Kelliher seem to be running a very tight ship and have been pushing their fellow legislators toward a meaningful conclusion to the legislative session. Frankly, most Capitol observers have commented that Senator Pogemiller seems tamer than in past years. Not having been in the caucuses or back rooms where the negotiations take place, it would be hard to judge. It is fair to say that being the Senate Majority Leader will make you enemies due to the nature of the job. Nonetheless, he has been a friend to the environmental cause.

Therefore, the analogy to Captain Ahab might be a little bit overdramatic, but it does give you a sense of the feeling a lot of legislators are having during these final negotiations. Most are not directly part of any of the decisions and they feel quite helpless. With the election looming for House members, it will fall to them to defend results of the session to a hyper cynical electorate. Often as things start moving in a direction a particular legislator is not comfortable with at the end of session, it is easy to suddenly feel like Ishmael as the planks of the Pequod start cracking under the strain of the pursuit.

To Senator Pogemiller’s credit, he has been the one pressing the Legislature with specific deadlines for the completion of their work. At the beginning of this last week he made it clear that all omnibus policy bills must be out of their conference committees by midnight on Monday of next week. He also announced that the budget reconciliation bill must be completed by the same time. The legislative leaders also developed budget targets this week for each of the budget categories. These are legislative targets and the governor has not agreed to them yet. The leaders felt it best to get on the same page before they make the final push for a global agreement with the administration. The legislative targets for the environment seem to be reasonable if they stay within the parameters of the proposals of both bodies. We won’t know details for a few days yet.

In the latest global agreement offer from the governor’s office this week, he did place an important environmental initiative back on the table – funding of the Central Corridor light rail between St. Paul and Minneapolis. His support for the project is contingent in part upon the Legislature funding the new Lake Vermilion State Park near Tower. Of course, many of our coalition team members also strongly support the creation of this new park. The MEP Government Relations Committee will be asked this week to adopt a position clearly outlining to the governor and the Legislature that we support the adoption of these two projects in the global agreement.

With deadlines in place and the pace quickening, it looks as if the session could wrap up as soon as Friday of next week. This is not necessarily good news for one of our last major legislative initiatives, the Clean Cars legislation. Our House author, Rep. Melissa Hortman, masterfully pushed it through the House Finance Committee with only two votes to spare on Tuesday. She did have to accept an amendment as part of a compromise to keep the bill moving. The amendment would delay the implementation by one more year. It was originally set to start in model year 2012, but now it will commence in model year 2013. The amendment also would require a study of the effects of the legislation on the ethanol industry. Most importantly the bill still puts the clean car standards into law, which is our main objective.

Unfortunately, the bill was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee where it has yet to receive a hearing. It also still languishes in Senator Metzen’s Senate Business, Industry and Jobs Committee, where it has sat since March 18th. We have been throwing all of our resources at pushing this bill through the process, but if the session does end quickly, this important piece of legislation could be lost at sea without a lifeboat.

The pace of the session has definitely picked up. Nonetheless, it has been the pattern of most of our recent legislative sessions to have the sudden rush turn into a stalemate. Therefore, we may be rushing to a global agreement shipwreck, but that may be beneficial for clean cars legislation. Stay tuned to what should be a very challenging and hopefully historic week as we move into our State’s 150th birthday.

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