Capitol Update for April 24, 2009

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This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Let’s call it the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party.”
-Hubert Humphrey, August 1943*

In 1943 Hubert Humphrey was just a recently graduated Ph.D. in political science from the University of Minnesota and was barely scraping by with a wife and a family.  The young man from South Dakota was utterly immersed in politics in his new home of Minneapolis.  This young activist found himself in the middle of an intersection in time where Minnesota politics was changing rapidly.  Never one to shy away from political intrigue, Humphrey took advantage of a clear need after the 1942 election for restructuring of the Democratic Party in Minnesota.

It was evident to many that a merger needed to occur between the Democratic Party, which was only the third largest party in the state at the time, and the more dominant Farmer Labor Party, which was an ever evolving coalition of labor activists, prairie populists and other various progressive movements.  Many of the national Democratic leaders felt the ragtag band of Farmer Laborites should give up the ghost and join the National Democratic Party.  Yet the Farmer Labor Party was more dominant over the previous two decades in Minnesota politics, holding far more statewide and local offices than the Democratic Party.

It was Humphrey who took the last of his family savings and headed to Washington, D.C., in July of 1943 to convince party leaders to take serious this new coalition movement in Minnesota.  Later in August of that year, several key party leaders met in Minnesota to consider the possibility.  Humphrey was one of the leading voices calling for a merger recognizing the proud heritage of Minnesota’s diverse progressive movement.  It was in that meeting he coined the name for the new party: Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL).

From its birth the DFL party has always been a diverse and broad ranging coalition of many different, often competing, political points of view.  That reality is no different today, with varying interests vying within the party from Iron Range politicians, inner-city progressives, suburban moderates, labor activists, teachers, rural progressives and farmers.  This diversity is a strength for the party on Election Day in this very independent-minded state, but that same diversity can also be a weakness when it comes time to govern.

At particular times in the legislative process, this weakness can often be exploited.  Often the times where it is exploited is at the point in the legislative session when the major omnibus bills reach the floor of the Senate and House.  The Minnesota Legislature has a very open amendment process in their floor debates and it is during these floor debates on omnibus bills that the Republican Party will try to exploit this weakness by offering what are commonly known as “wedge amendments.”  These are intended to drive wedges between various factions of the DFL party.  These differences are often played out most distinctly on bills dealing with the environment and agriculture.

This week DFL leadership in both the Senate and House brought their separate proposed omnibus environment and energy bills to the floor for the full bodies to consider.  As a result, the Green Team was collectively holding their breath while scrambling to keep coalitions together, fend off bad amendments, and preserve funding priorities.

On Wednesday evening the chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, Jean Wagenuis (DFL-Minneapolis), took on a 5 1/2 hour marathon debate which ranged from the bizarre to the absurd with 34 proposed amendments.  As revealed in previous stories, the House Omnibus Environment Finance Bill does an excellent job in preserving investments in water cleanup and critical conservation programs.  The bill also contains improved fee increases ensuring that those who use our natural resources are paying their fair share.  This includes increased fees on water permits and mining.  These new fee increases ensure that there is no overall reduction in environmental investments even before we get to the constitutional amendment money. The bill also contains an excellent provision on disclosure of toxic chemicals in children’s products authored by Kate Knuth (DFL – New Brighton).

It was clear that the Republican minority was trying to create the impression that the environment bill was highly controversial, which seemed to be for the purpose of giving the Governor cover if he were to veto the bill sometime in the future.  Most of the 34 amendments were from the minority and most failed.  Fortunately, to the benefit of the Green Team, the highly diverse DFL caucus held together and fended off most of the wedge amendment attempts by the Republicans with only a few of the DFL members occasionally flaking off to support one of the amendments offered.  The House Republican caucus attempts at wedge amendments were described by most observers as strange at best.  The longest debate was over a provision in the bill calling for fish advisories to be published in more languages than just English.  Now the House environment bill heads off to the next phase in the legislative drama, conference committees, in relatively good shape given the depth of the state’s budget crisis.

On Thursday afternoon the chair of the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division, Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), experienced a much more concise and conventional Senate floor debate.  The debate finished in only a couple hours with just a fist full of amendments.  Overall the Senate as taken a different direction in dealing with the budget crisis by calling for a 7% across-the-board cut in each of the agencies’’ general funds.  Therefore, the Senate bill has fewer investments in environment and natural resources agencies.  Senator Anderson did work hard to try to preserve the intent of the constitutional amendment and made sure not to disproportionately cut water cleanup and conservation programs.  Nonetheless, the Senate bill has about $20 million less spending than the House proposal.  The reason for this, in part, was the House being more aggressive on raising fees.

The DFL coalition fractured in the Senate on one important proposal.  The fracture occurred over an amendment to weaken the toxic chemicals disclosure in children’s products in the omnibus bill.  The amendment narrows the scope of the chemicals to be disclosed to consumers.  The amendment was offered by Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook), and much to the surprise of the advocates, the amendment was supported by the original author of the toxic chemicals bill, Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park).  Therefore, the Senate bill enters into the conference committee with less money and some room for improvement on toxic chemical reporting.  The Green Team will be working with the chairs hopefully to bring the diverse interests of the DFL caucus together as good stewards of our environment.

One of the more interesting floor debates was over ethanol subsidies and it showed fractures in both in the DFL and Republican caucuses.  The debate occurred on the Omnibus Agriculture and Veterans Affairs bill this Wednesday.  (Yes, it’s an interesting combination of budget categories which has its own separate story to remain untold here.)  Over the past two decades Minnesota has been a leader in the promotion of ethanol production by providing extensive subsidies to the industry.  The bill proposes a 20% reduction in the subsidy for the next fiscal biennium, but this still amounts to over $24 million for ethanol producer payments.  Also, the highly respected Office of Legislative Auditor came out with a program analysis of the ethanol subsidy and was very critical of the program.  In particular, they point out that there is very dubious overall environmental benefit from the program.  You can read the full report at:

As a result, when the Omnibus Agriculture and Veterans Affairs bill reached the floor on Wednesday, there was an effort among progressive DFL members and conservative Republicans to eliminate subsidies for ethanol altogether.  The amendment was offered by Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul).  The amendment failed on a 49 to 81 vote.  Even though this seems like a lopsided vote, a closer analysis shows some vulnerability for the corn ethanol subsidy.  Those voting to get rid of the subsidy were 25 Republicans and 24 DFL members.  Six of the Republican members opposed to the subsidies are from outside the metro and one, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, fills the legislative seat of former speaker Steve Sviggum from southern Goodhue County.  Sviggum was one of the biggest champions for the ethanol subsidy during his service in the Legislature.  Of the 60 DFL members who voted to keep the subsidy, 26 are from the Twin Cities.  With appropriate incentive, many of these could easily break away from continued support from the subsidy.  Therefore, a good political analysis would indicate that the ongoing corn ethanol subsidy may be ripe for some change; something to consider after session as we prepare for 2010.

Of course the final weeks of the 2009 session still loom ahead of us and the Green Team has plenty of work ahead to navigate the easily fractured coalitions of the DFL legislative caucuses and then get our proposals signed by a Republican governor whose eyes are on a broader horizon.  Hopefully we can be as skillful as the old champion of coalition building Hubert Humphrey as we work to protect the environmental investments and our core environmental policies through the rest of the 2009 session

*”Hubert Humphrey, a Biography,” Carl Solberg, Borealis Books, 2003, page 95.

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