Veto Fears Stall Minnesota Construction Jobs Bill
Fearing a veto, legislators held back $1 billion bonding bill to seek compromise
Minnesota lawmakers will take a self-imposed cooling-off period before engaging the governor over the $1 billion construction bill DFLers rammed through the Legislature Feb. 22.
After a night of sleep and a chance to rethink strategy, DFL lawmakers on Tuesday took the unusual step of not forwarding the legislation to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- and his veto pen. Instead, lawmakers decided to hold onto the borrowing bill for a couple days to see if they can work out a compromise with the governor.
"It's a pause, it's a second chance, and I think it's the right thing to do right now," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said.
The move is widely seen as an early legislative victory for Pawlenty, who had warned repeatedly that the bill contained too many local projects and omitted his top priorities -- a new sex offender facility in Moose Lake and upgrades for the Oak Park Heights correctional facility.
The rancor over the construction bill comes less than a week after Pawlenty vetoed a plan to restore General Assistance Medical Care and as lawmakers head into what is expected to be the toughest work of the session: erasing a $1.2 billion deficit.
In Pawlenty, DFLers are battling a lame-duck governor who has little or no skin in the game. With less than a year to go in his term, he is not encumbered by vast new initiatives or proposals that might more easily coax a governor to the bargaining table. Instead, they face a Republican governor who appears to be eyeing a run for the White House as he tries to polish a reputation as a blue-state fiscal conservative who has clamped down on government spending.
"The governor doesn't need another bonding bill; he's not running again," said state DFL Senate Tax Committee Chairman Tom Bakk, who is running to replace Pawlenty. "He knows the Legislature needs a bonding bill, so the power's really tipped his way."
At a news conference, Pawlenty said DFLers didn't include his staff in the spending bill negotiations and then expected him to whittle it down with a line-item veto, as he has in the past.
"They load up the bill and want to be political Santa Claus," said Pawlenty, who initially proposed a much leaner $685 million borrowing bill. "They don't want to be the bad person and assume I am going to line-item it down and do their dirty work for them. And I usually do, but this year it wasn't in a close enough range to do that."
Just before Monday night's floor debate, Pawlenty sent a terse letter to lawmakers, promising to reject the entire bill.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said Pawlenty had told legislative leaders in several private meetings to pass a bill and he would cut it down to what he felt was acceptable. DFLers figured Pawlenty's last-minute tough talk was merely political bluster.
"Normally, in business, when someone tells you something in private, you trust it," Pogemiller said.
Kelliher and Pogemiller said the governor has been evasive in explaining his construction priorities, often dribbling them out by ones and twos at news conferences. On Tuesday, the governor noted money in the bill for a snowboarding venture at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis and a sports complex on the Iron Range.
"It's like negotiating with a shadow," Pogemiller said.
On Tuesday, lawmakers reviewed Pawlenty's written correspondence and statements and found about $70 million in projects he found objectionable. The spending he seeks for Moose Lake, Oak Park Heights and other projects adds about $100 million.
Top Republican lawmakers, who flanked Pawlenty at the news conference, blasted DFLers for completing the final construction bill behind closed doors early Monday morning.
"This is what happens when you rush, this is what happens when you do things in the darkness of night, at 1 a.m.," said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina.
Said Pawlenty: "They intentionally did this; now they have to clean up the mess."
Lawmakers have until Thursday to reconsider the bill.
If rays of hope for a compromise emerge, lawmakers can send it back to a conference committee for retooling.
Otherwise, it gets forwarded to the governor.
Lawmakers rarely pull back approved legislation from the governor. The most extreme example came in 1982, when lawmakers passed a bill on election law and then wanted to revise it. The bill was already sitting on the governor's desk.
About the Author
Baird Helgeson is a political reporter for the Star Tribune at the Minnesota Capitol bureau in St. Paul.