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First Reading: A grand finale

Published (5/30/2008)
By Nick Busse
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House and Senate leadership meet in the conference room just off Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office prior to a May 18 news conference to announce a budget deal. This is the room where legislative leaders and Pawlenty spent most of the end of the 2008 legislative session working out the budget agreement. In attendance, from left, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Rep. Tom Emmer, Pawlenty’s Press Secretary Brian McClung, Pawlenty and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)

They did it.

After weeks of tense negotiations that seemed sometimes to teeter on the brink of collapse, “a handshake and spreadsheets,” in the words of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, were all it took to bring the 2008 legislative session to a timely and successful close.

Standing in his reception room May 18, flanked on either side by legislative leaders, Pawlenty rattled off a list of the items included in a budget deal that they had just agreed to: a fix to the state’s approximately $1 billion deficit; “historic” property tax relief; funding for a new state park at Lake Vermilion and the Central Corridor light rail project; and a “nation-leading” health care reform package.

“As you know, in this building sometimes people choose to highlight differences. Today I want to choose to highlight our common interest in serving our state. This process has yielded common results and common goals for all of us standing here,” Pawlenty said.

It was a modest declaration — one that belied the historic nature of the moment. Outside the window, thousands of Minnesotans could be seen gathering in front of the Capitol to celebrate 150 years of Minnesota statehood. The sesquicentennial events that took place over the course of the weekend included live music, marching soldiers, flyovers by vintage aircraft and fighter jets, speeches by local celebrities and performances by actors dressed in period costumes.

At the very moment that Minnesotans were celebrating all that is good and remarkable about their state, their elected leaders were delivering one final cause for celebration. By the time a formation of four F-16s from the Minnesota Air National Guard rumbled in low over the crowd later that evening, Pawlenty and the lawmakers could join together in the ensuing applause knowing that legislative gridlock would not be putting a damper on the occasion.

“I think we have been the most productive Legislature in a very, very long time. We have reduced partisanship, we have got the job done, and we have produced results for Minnesotans,” said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Mpls).

“This isn’t about a Democrat or Republican accomplishment; the end of session, I think, is about a bipartisan accomplishment,” declared an equally sanguine House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall).

House and Senate members had only a few hours left to finish their work, but it was clear that the hard part was over. The work that remained would be largely a matter of process, and the state’s leaders could breathe a sigh of relief.

Minutes before the House adjourned sine die May 18, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, standing left, again urged members to support a resolution urging Congress to open relations with Cuba. A previous resolution was vetoed by the governor. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)Even 24 hours earlier, such a happy ending had seemed unlikely. Despite several weeks of hinting by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Mpls) and others that lawmakers might actually go home early this year, House and Senate leaders once again found themselves scrambling down to the wire to find an agreement with the governor. In the week leading up to adjournment, negotiators would emerge periodically from the governor’s office to announce that serious progress was being made in budget talks — only to proclaim hours later that they had reached an impasse.

With the state’s May 19 constitutional deadline for adjournment looming, a budget deal remained elusive. The breakthrough came late on May 17, when legislators announced that an agreement had been reached on a health care reform package. From there, everything else quickly fell into place, and by the next afternoon — with literally hours to spare — legislative leaders and the governor were slapping each other on the back in congratulations.

“This was a long, hard session, and frankly one along the way I thought perhaps we were looking at a train wreck, but indeed a couple of weeks ago the governor and legislative leaders grabbed the pole and moved the switch and headed all in a different direction — and a good direction,” said Senate Minority Leader David Senjem (R-Rochester).

“It took a lot of hard work. We’ve spent a lot of hours together. And I think that that has paid off with a good result for Minnesotans,” Kelliher said.

It wasn’t all good news. Pogemiller pointed out that a $1 billion to $2 billion deficit is likely in the next biennium. As House and Senate leaders each took their turn at the podium, there was a general consensus that there was a lot of work left undone, and that next year’s budget negotiations could be even tougher.

“I think as history looks back at this session, it will look back very kindly. I think we did a lot of good things,” Senjem said. “I think we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us, but I think we’ve prepared well and we’ll move into the 2009 session … with a renewed spirit and a feeling of optimism.”

With a jubilant grin, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher brings down the last gavel of the 2008 session at 11:45 p.m. May 18. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Kelliher agreed, saying she and her colleagues have established a level of trust with the governor that can serve as a foundation for future talks.

“Although it’s been difficult, I think we actually have built trust with each other. A couple of times during the negotiations, we referred to it as ‘the trust bank’ — and that maybe there had been too many withdrawals and we needed to make a few more deposits in the trust bank to be able to get this done. And I think at this point, the bank actually has a bit of a surplus around here with the legislative leaders and the governor to be able to do some more work,” she said.

By the time a barrage of fireworks lit up the sky over the Capitol building — the explosions helpfully adding some emphasis to a point Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) was making on the House floor — legislators had largely wrapped things up. House members voted on a handful of smaller bills late in the evening, and the motion to adjourn sine die was made shortly before midnight. The final gavel was dropped, and the chamber erupted into a round of applause.

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