Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Three Ring Politics

Three Ring Circus was a classic ABC School House Rock video that first aired in 1979 and it described the three branches of the national government. With the end of the Minnesota legislative session and Pawlenty’s new appointments to the Minnesota Supreme Court, Three Ring Circus is a good title for commenting on state of Minnesota politics today.

The Final Budget Deal

It stunk and they lied! That is the long and the short of it. The budget deal did just about everything wrong that could be done. First, think about Galen Robinson and those who challenged the governor’s power to unallot. They won in the courts (along with a amicus brief from the DFL House) and then the DFL essentially ratified the governor’s unallotment. I do not know if the parties to the Supreme Court case got their nutrition funds cut by this vote but the governor lost legally but won politically. Last Friday on Almanac Representative Kohls debated Representative Winkler (a former student of mine) and the former made a good point in declaring that while the DFL contended that the governor illegally unallotted, they had no game plan if they won. He was correct.

Smart budgeting and planning suggested that from the time the Governor lost in Ramsey County Court both Pawlenty and the DFL should have planned for the possibility that the Supreme Court would rule against the governor and they would have to deal with an extra $3 billion short fall. I can see the governor being in denial (as he has been for years on many issues) but the DFL should have been prepared for this and they were not. Don’t wish for something, you might get it. They (the DFL) got the ruling but did they really want to win in court? I doubt it. A victory forced them to make tough choices and they took the path of least resistence...ratify the unallotment.

The second major problem with the budget deal was to defer $2 billion of K-12 spending into the future. Both Pawlenty and Kelliher then declared there were no cuts to education. Not true! Either the money will not be repaid or school districts will have to borrow short term or cut something while they wait for the money to arrive. K-12 was hurt bad.

The third problem was that deferring spending to the future only makes the future budget problems worse. For the next budget cycle we start with a structural deficit of $5-6 billion. This budget deal does nothing to make it any better.

In effect, what happened here was identical to what happened in 2002. Then gubernatorial candidates and then legislators Pawlenty and Roger Moe did not want to deal with the budget problems and just pushed them to past the election. We have been dealing with that mistake every since. Now Pawlenty wants to push the budget doomsday off to the next governor while he runs for president, and Kelliher and most of the legislature took the easy route to delay the day of reckoning until after the election. Everyone wanted to get out of town to run for office.

Federal Health Law and the Governor’s Race

The other dumb move, especially for the DFL, was to agree to a proposal allowing until January 15, 2011, for the governor to decide about shifting many individuals insured by the State to Medicaid. The financials to do this make sense and MN should have done this. But Tom Emmer and the GOP want to run against Obamacare and creeping socialized medicine in 2010. Pawlenty wants to run for president criticizing it, and Kelliher wants to say if elected she will opt in.

The reality is that this is a ugly year for Washington, D.C., and incumbents as the Tuesday primaries in KY and PA demonstrated. Even if the federal law is a good one (a big if) I think the GOP won on this issue in MN because they can make it the issue for November. It is a great wedge issue (creeping socialism, big government, taxes, state rights) they may help the Republicans.

I can see why Kelliher agreed to this. Neither her nor the DFL won anything else and this was a face saver. She can at least say she got a small potential victory. However, between the bad budget deal, ratifying the unallotment, and screwing K-12, it is hard to see how she or the legislature won this session. They also got a smaller than desired bonding bill. Overall, Pawlenty, despite losing big time in court, he comes out politically ahead.

The New Minnesota Supreme Court

Pawlenty has now packed the Minnesota Supreme Court with four solid conservatives. All four are bright and capable but Lori and Gildea and David Stras are clearly conservative and the governor has left a clear imprint on the ideological direction of the court. Expect to see more 4-3 votes on some issues such as criminal due process. Also expect to see the Supreme Court retreated from using our State Constitution as an independent tool to reach decisions that depart from federal precedent. Stras, in his unallotment brief, wanted to treat Minnesota’s Constitution no different from the federal when it came to separation of powers. Watch to see if he takes a similar lockstep approach with other issues.

I feel sorry for Gildea and Stras. Both are capable but tainted by the governor’s decision to appoint them in light of their role in the unallotment decision. It looks lack court packing and favoritism by the governor. He could not win legally so he decided to load the court and reward those who favored his position. Neither Gildea nor Stras have done anything wrong, it is Pawlenty who acted in a way they simply ignored the appearance of impropriety here.

Overall, is Minnesota better off politically by the events of the last week? I doubt it. It is a three ring circus.

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