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First Reading: Letting the sunshine in

Published (5/15/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, from left, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich listen as Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson and State Budget Director Jim Schowalter answer question during a May 14 meeting of the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy. The middle chair was reserved for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who members hoped would attend to present details about a potential unallotment plan. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid) Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy staff don’t have windows in their basement quarters of the State Office Building, but the group they serve has tried to shed some daylight on traditionally secretive — and dependably contentious — end-of-session deal making.

Budget targets for conference committees have conventionally been hashed out by the governor and legislative leaders behind closed doors. They would then be handed to conference committees to work out the details.

As the session winds to a close, the negotiations have once again moved behind the doors of the governor’s office. But there is little argument that this year, DFL leaders sought to create more transparency about arriving at a balanced budget. The previously obscure commission held weekly, sometimes daily televised hearings, where members hammered agency heads with questions and House, Senate and executive positions were aired.

“I think it’s all about sunshine,” said Rep. Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), one of nine House members appointed to the commission along with nine senators. “It’s all about bringing a mysterious backroom process more into the open. As legislators, it’s always good to be as public and transparent as possible, whether it’s discussing targets or federal stimulus funds, or getting on the record the positions of the House, Senate and governor.”

Republicans have criticized DFL leaders for what they say is lack of clarity about the nature of the commission’s public discussions this year. Commission member Rep. Paul Kohls (R-Victoria) said there’s a difference between deciding targets in public and public discussion of targets that are decided elsewhere. He supports public access to legislative activity, and said it’s traditional, and well within the rights of House and Senate leaders, to set targets privately. But the commission does give the DFL the bully pulpit advantage for now.

“The Democrats are certainly using it to advocate for their position. I think they have at times used the commission as a bit of a hammer over the administration without opportunity for full rebuttal by the administration,” Kohls said. “But nobody’s going to take the politics out of St. Paul.”

What is the LCPFP for?

The commission was established in 1987 as a vehicle to research and analyze all manner of things fiscal, including economic trends, the governor’s budget and state revenue and expenditures projections and proposals. The House speaker and Senate majority leader alternate the chair responsibilities every biennium. However, it’s not used in the same way every year — and rarely as publicly as this year.

“It ebbs and flows in its use,” said Greg Hubinger, the commission’s 15-year director. “It depends on what they want to do with it.”

“It ebbs more than flows,” observed Bill Marx, the nonpartisan House chief fiscal analyst, who’s been kept on his toes with the commission’s requests for reams of information about federal stimulus and stabilization funds, and comparisons of legislative and executive branch proposals.

Sometimes the commission is used as a forum to work out sticky fiscal situations, such as this year’s airing of how to incorporate funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 with its finicky conditions, or the first Northwest Airlines bailout in 1991. In 2002, it commissioned reports on statutory appropriations, funds, accounts and budget rules that were adopted as budgeting policy guidelines for the Legislature.

The commission has never been charged with setting conference committee budget targets, Marx said. Its responsibilities described in law are broad enough it would be possible to argue that setting conference targets is within its purview.

“No one has ever represented that this is a bill-passing, deal-making panel,” Simon said. “To those who are disappointed (with the lack of public target-setting) I would say it was never advertised as such.”

Is it worth it?

Everyone likes transparency, they say, but as the session slogs toward adjournment some Capitol veterans say the traditional top-down way of dealing with the big numbers might be more productive. Others are a bit cynical, suggesting the openness is more show than tell.

Seasoned lobbyists say the conference process seemed more effective when targets were agreed upon ahead of time.

“Leadership isn’t getting to ‘yes,’ which isn’t allowing the process to work,” said Minneapolis Public Schools lobbyist Jim Grathwol. He compares conferencing without a target to sailing without a rudder. “You can’t negotiate without that direction from leadership.” He said the difference is marked compared with a decade ago.

At least one conference committee chair concurs. “The short timeline works against an open process,” said Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), adding that “the jury’s out” on whether the push to openness has been productive.

“There’s been a lot of public show and posturing,” said Greiling, who co-chairs the E-12 education finance conference committee with Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer). “In the traditional conference committee of yore, before the current leadership, there was a week or more of public offer-trading. Then it was crystal clear who wanted what.”

However, the lead House conferee on the agriculture and veterans finance bill conference committee had praises for the openness, calling it an “experiment to do the negotiating in the room,” said Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar). “I think it was a neat process, and one I’ve not seen in my 13 years here.”

Kohls and Simon say their participation has been meaningful.

“I listen a lot more than I talk. It’s fascinating to see the interplay between leaders of the executive branch and legislative branch,” Simon said.”My philosophy after three terms is that the House and Senate do not collaborate enough. This was a way to do so consistently, starting early in the session.”

He said that shouldn’t bolster the case made by opponents that DFL leaders have had more than enough time to agree on targets.

“There’s a natural incentive to wait until the last minute to strike the right deal,” Simon said. “At least when it happens the sides are better informed and better understand each other.”

Kohls said the commission is a tool that has its place. “We had some good discussion about whether we should go down the path we’re going down or approach it from a 180-degree angle,” he said. “I’ve certainly used the commission as a way to advocate for a structural framework for how we get out of here.”

And negotiations continue

The end-of-session rhetoric was cranked up a notch May 14 when Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced he would not call a special session or permit a government shutdown if legislators do not finish their work by May 18.

Ten major finance bills reached the governor’s desk by May 13, and the governor said he would sign all of them, but with line-item vetoes. However, he indicated they leave a $3 billion funding gap.

In addition to the line-item vetoes, Pawlenty said he would use his unallotment authority beginning July 1 to resolve the state’s projected $4.6 billion deficit.

“A key principle is that the DFL-controlled Legislature shouldn’t spend more money than the state has available,” Pawlenty said. “Unfortunately, they have done just that and now I’ll fix it.”

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Mpls) responded with a letter to Pawlenty inviting him to meet with the Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy that night to discuss his proposal. She said Minnesotans deserve to know how he plans to proceed with his unallotment strategy. Pawlenty did not appear.

“On the face it looks extreme, but we need to see the details,” said House Majority Leader Tony Sertich (DFL-Chisholm).

Members are expected to meet May 15, and possibly through the weekend, to further discuss a negotiated end-of-session agreement.

— M. Cook and L. Schutz

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