Has the Governor’s State of the State speech set the tone for a rancorous political session?

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update

“We, the people of the state of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberty and desiring to perpetuate its blessings and secure the same to ourselves and our prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution.”

-The preamble to the Constitution of the state of Minnesota, August 29, 1857


On Thursday of this week, Governor Pawlenty, following the time-honored tradition for over 150 years, delivered the gubernatorial State of the State address to a joint convention of both the House and Senate within the House chambers.

His public relations folks promoted this, his last State of the State speech, as uplifting and inspirational.  The speech was shorter than most State of the State addresses and had the flavor of a good stump speech for a candidate for federal office.  He had very inspirational references to the sacrifice of many in Minnesota who have volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces overseas.  He clearly laid out his theme of smaller government without sacrificing public safety and lowering taxes to stimulate the economy for the purpose of creating jobs.

Pawlenty’s speech did generate a few rousing standing ovations from his Republican colleagues, but for the most part the DFL legislators showed little inspiration as they sat on their hands during most of the applause lines.  Only occasionally did the DFL provide polite applause when it was offered, and that wasn’t very often.  At the conclusion of his speech, Pawlenty provided the full quote of our Constitution’s preamble noted above for the purpose of encouraging a bipartisan effort to solve the state’s largest budget crisis since the Great Depression.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Republican governor should use this particular preamble to encourage bipartisan cooperation.  The words are definitely poetic and strike at the heart of the frontier spirit gripping Minnesota’s pioneers back in 1857.  Their can-do spirit and desire to build a prosperous future for our then fledgling state is definitely evident in the preamble’s wording.  What the Governor may not have realized is that the preamble was developed by a constitutional convention which was marred by severe partisan strife. 

In accordance with the federal legislation enabling Minnesota to move forward to statehood, an election was held on June 1, 1857, to select delegates to a constitutional convention.  When the delegates assembled on July 13, 1857, it was clear that the convention was evenly split between the Democratic delegates and those of the newly formed Republican Party.  The beginning scenes of the convention were so chaotic that the two different factions finally broke into two separate “conventions.”  The Democratic “convention” was presided over by the main spokesman for the fur trading industry in Minnesota, Henry H. Sibley.  The Republican “convention” was convened by a recently arrived New England abolitionist by the name of John W. North, founder of the city of Northfield.

The hostility was so great that the separate “conventions” never did meet as a full body and did most of their negotiations through what was essentially a conference committee between the two “conventions.”  The depth of their animosity was so great that even after the delegates finally agreed on the terms of a constitution to submit to the United States Congress on August 28, they refused to sign the same piece of paper.  The delegates from the Republican convention signed a copy of the Constitution on white paper and the Democrats signed a constitution printed on slightly blue tinted paper.

Most political observers believe that the 2010 political session will have its share of partisan rancor.  With the recent Republican victories on the East Coast, the Governor reportedly positioning himself for a run at the presidency, and several legislators positioning themselves for a run for the Governor’s office, it will be hard to avoid partisan bickering.  Therefore, hopefully the Governor, by citing our state Constitution preamble, was indicating that this next session was going to be highly political in the Minnesota tradition, but in the end our politicians will arrive at a fruitful conclusion to this challenging session.  Even though the state’s constitution was marred by partisan backbiting, the state’s voters overwhelmingly ratified it on a vote of 30,055 to 571 a few months later.

The State of the State speech is one of the important beginning pieces to a legislative session.  It helps set the tone and direction of the session.  Minnesota’s Constitution has created a very strong governorship with strong veto powers.  The Republican caucus, though they are a minority in the House, have sufficient numbers to uphold any vetoes from their fellow Republican governor.  Therefore, what the Governor lays out in this speech has significant bearing on the direction of the session.  Not surprisingly, the message was heavy in Republican themes focused mostly on improving Minnesota’s business climate so the private sector can generate jobs.

From the perspective of environment and conservation, Governor Pawlenty had little to say in his State of the State speech.  He did mention the need to improve and speed up the process for businesses to obtain permits from the state.  As part of his job creation theme, he mentioned that he has issued a directive to his state agencies to find ways to speed up the permitting process under existing law.  What he did not mention in this part of the speech was a call on the Legislature to change environment review or permitting procedures.  Nonetheless, there is legislation being promoted by the Chamber of Commerce to streamline permitting and environmental review.  Several environmental organizations are engaged in discussions with them.  Fortunately, the House chief author of the Chamber’s language is Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL – Brooklyn Park), who has shown a willingness to work on this issue in an open and fair manner with the environmental community.

Also significantly absent from his speech was any reference to the new Lake Vermilion State Park.  Governor Pawlenty played a key role in finalizing a deal to purchase what would be the first State Park established in decades.  This park will ensure that some of the most unique and beautiful northern lake shore property in the state will be preserved for future generations.  In order to finalize a deal the Legislature must make some minor changes to the law to finalize the purchase.  Therefore, it’s surprising he took a pass on taking credit for the park and calling on the Legislature to close the deal.  Hopefully this is a strategy to take the political strife out of this initiative.

A good sign for the park is the fact that legislators who represent the area where the park is located have introduced legislation that would allow the sale to be completed.  They also combined the neighboring Soudan Underground Mine State Park with the new acquisition under the name Lake Vermilion State Park.  The bill will have its first hearing in the Senate on Monday, February 15 before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee.  It is scheduled in room 107 of the Capitol at 12:30 p.m.

The Legislature has kept up its torrid pace to pass the capital investments bill in the first weeks of session.  The full Senate acted on the bill last Tuesday where the bill was adopted on a bipartisan vote of 52 – 14.  The House is expected to have the bill on their floor for final passage on Monday of next week.  It is clear that leadership is already negotiating to resolve the differences between the two bodies, and you can expect the conference committee to move quickly next week.  There’s a chance it could even be on the Governor’s desk by the end of next week.  The Governor did not directly threaten to veto the bonding bill in his speech, but he clearly indicated that he wanted to receive a bonding bill that was affordable, reasonable and made up primarily of projects with statewide significance.  Right now the House and Senate have proposed nearly $1 billion of projects and the Governor proposed a bill slightly less than $700 million.

Finally of significance to the environment was the Governor’s announcement that his budget would come out on Monday.  He told the Legislature they can expect deep and severe cuts.  He promised to protect core public safety programs, classrooms and veteran services.  He also proposed significant business tax cuts in order to stimulate job creation.  Presently Minnesota’s budget has an almost 3% deficit of revenue over spending for the second half of the biennium, which must be balanced according to our Constitution.  The above programs Pawlenty suggested should not be subject to cuts make up almost a third of our state’s budget.  Therefore, you can expect significant proposed cuts to the DNR, PCA and other environmental programs.

Interestingly, as part of the concluding theme of his State of the State speech, the Governor focused on the character of Minnesota’s people and the things we love.  Most of his examples of the things Minnesotans value had to do with our Great Outdoors.  Preserving investments in our Great Outdoors will be a challenge in these difficult times, but hopefully the Governor and the Legislature will recognize how critical perpetuating the blessings of our Great Outdoors is to our prosperity.

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