As he admired the shiny new penny pin affixed to his lapel one day recently, Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski spoke enthusiastically about the coalition he recently started. “I think the supply is out now,” he said of the lapel pin. “But we’re making more.” The penny is a symbol of the new group, which some have dubbed the “Not a Penny More” caucus in reference to a suddenly ubiquitous poster that many of Drazkowski’s fellow travelers have taped to the doors of their offices.
Drazkowski, however, doesn’t think of it as a caucus. The group doesn’t meet, nor does it plan to. In Drazkowski’s view, it’s an alliance of like-minded Republicans bound together by their refusal to vote for any plan that spends more than $34 billion on the 2012-13 budget. The group has pulled in more than half of the House GOP caucus in the past week or so, Drazkowski said, many of them freshman members who were elected on a no-new-taxes wave last fall. And the third-term House member from Mazeppa says the ranks are still growing.
The group has evolved since earlier in the session, when a smaller claque of longtime conservative mavericks in the chamber, including Drazkowski and Rep. Mark Buesgens, had protested the GOP leadership’s move from the $32 billion budget they touted on the campaign trail to the $34 billion proposal they unveiled after a sunnier-than-expected February forecast.
Now Drazkowski and others say they have accepted the $34 billion number. But in their eyes, this means that they have already “compromised” on the budget — even if it’s only with other Republicans.
“It’s a strong commitment among members who are saying we have already moved from just over $32 billion in the current biennium to a proposal that spends everything we have,” he said, “and that’s the compromise position. We were sent here to stop the growth and excesses of government. And to spend everything you have coming in, that’s enough. It’s a theme that very accurately weaves our caucus together.”
But with a week to go before the Legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn, sources say the growing, vocal group puts Republican leaders in both chambers in a tough position as they try to hash out a deal with Gov. Mark Dayton to solve the state’s $5 billion general fund deficit. If the group’s numbers stay strong, its efforts could pose difficulties for leaders down the road should they attempt to pursue a compromise agreement with the governor that is larger than $34 billion total.
“On one end of the spectrum you have Dayton and his $37 billion budget,” a GOP operative said, “and on the other you have these Republicans who think we should have stuck with $32 billion. For them, $34 billion is the middle ground, but Dayton is never going to see it that way, and the reality of that is really starting to set in for [the GOP leadership]. If the governor really isn’t going to settle for a budget that doesn’t include even a little revenue, they could make things very difficult. [Penny group members] certainly aren’t making anything easier.”
By last Monday, posters had begun popping up on Republican legislators’ office doors depicting an overflowing bag of cash with “$34 billion” stenciled on the front and the legend “Not a Penny More” inscribed above. Many of the members who have hung the signs are new to the Capitol, including freshman Assistant Majority Leader Kurt Daudt as well as Reps. Mary Franson and Doug Wardlow. Among the more veteran Republican caucus members sporting signs on their door: Buesgens, Tom Hackbarth, Joyce Peppin, Peggy Scott and Mary Kiffmeyer. (See accompanying sidebar.)
“Obviously we are concerned primarily about spending and taxing policy, and we want to make sure everyone knows that we want to hold the spending line where it is,” said freshman Rep. Roger Crawford, a former mayor of Mora who is also part of the group.
Crawford said he and other freshmen have a “great deal” of confidence in the leadership’s ability to hold the line on taxes but added that negotiations are “coming down to crunch time right now, and we want to get the message out to all parties involved.” Crawford says he doesn’t know whether the group’s stance on the budget makes the leadership’s job any more difficult. “Easier or harder, we are just putting it out there, and that’s it,” he said. A handful of freshmen have so far abstained from signing on, including Reps. Rich Murray and John Kriesel.
“As a rule, I don’t sign pledges,” Taxes Chairman Greg Davids said. “They’re saying you don’t go a penny more than $34 billion. Well I’m saying, at current rates, there may be a little more money after the next forecast, and I would like to put those dollars into local government aid or schools. But I’m not going to raise the tax rate.”
While the Senate has been the quieter chamber over the $34 billion figure this session, some GOP senators have the signs on their Capitol office doors as well, including Gretchen Hoffman, Al DeKruif and Michelle Benson. “When we are budgeting at home, we take the money we earn from work and we don’t plan on a bonus,” Benson said. “What we need to do here is take what we have and use it, and that’s it.”
When approached about the group on the House floor, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Majority Leader Matt Dean started to walk away and said they had a meeting to attend. Asked again whether they had any comment on the group, Zellers simply repeated, “We have to go to a meeting.”
Republican consultant Gregg Peppin, who was a GOP House staffer when Republicans last held control of the chamber, said it’s not uncommon for factions like this to form near the end of a tough budgeting session, especially among fiscal conservatives. Among past rabble rousers: Phil Krinkie, Cal Ludeman and Steve Sviggum. He said that while the “Not a Penny More” contingent is passionate about government spending, there are other nonfiscal items, such as a photo identification requirement at the polls and education policy, that those members may be willing to compromise on.
“The position that they stake out, certainly it’s a strong, heartfelt position, but it’s all a negotiation,” he said, “and that doesn’t mean there aren’t other nonfiscal items that they want to see coming out of the session.”
Not everyone around the Capitol is taking the group seriously. One veteran GOP hand standing outside the Senate chamber scoffed at the group. “It’s like they think they’re leadership’s sales managers,” the source said, comparing the stratagem with a ploy typically used by car salesmen. “It’s not like [the leadership] will be in the middle of negotiations with Dayton and say, ‘Let me check with my sales manager.’ It’s ridiculous.”