Chairs say no new information, just ‘campaign rhetoric’
With just one week left in the 2011 regular session, Gov. Mark Dayton was already intimating that he would veto all of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s budget bills. By the last day, it was altogether clear that he would do so, and Republicans began asking for the governor to send them the veto letters.
“We will remain hopeful that he might sign some [budget bills]. If not, it would be nice to see a veto message today,” Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel said on the last day of the session. “Right now.”
Republicans got their wish a day late on Tuesday, as Dayton rolled out nine budget bill vetoes and 34 total pages of letters addressed to the respective committee chairs and legislative leaders. “Compromise is never easy, because each person must give up something that is important,” Dayton wrote in a passage that appeared in a number of the letters. “Compromise requires us to agree to items that we don’t agree with. That is the only way we will reconcile our differences on the state budget.”
Republicans who received the veto letters, however, say they strike a tone of anything but compromise. In the case of education finance, an area in which Republicans and Dayton were said to find the most agreement, GOP. Rep. Pat Garofalo called the letter on his budget a bad omen for upcoming negotiations to solve the state’s $5 billion budget deficit.
“It was a huge step backward,” Garofalo said. “A colossal step backward. We moved toward the governor through the process, and his response was to move away from us.”
A ‘political response’ to a ‘serious effort’
In a news conference to announce the vetoes Tuesday, Dayton wasted no time blaming the current budget impasse on “extreme” caucus members and predicted a “strong likelihood” of a government shutdown. A special session, at the very least, will be necessary to finish the job, he said.
“The problem really resides with some of the extreme right-wing caucus members, especially some of the newcomers, who seemingly understand little about government and care even less,” Dayton said in the governor’s reception room. “Unfortunately, the leadership seems to be held captive to their extremism and whipped up by the Republican Party.”
His comments were an unwelcome addition to a bundle of veto letters that some GOP committee chairs have described as “campaign rhetoric.” “It was not helpful to have a really political response to an extremely serious effort,” Health and Human Services Finance Committee Chairman Jim Abeler said. “It was like reading a campaign ad.”
Abeler said that in the Health and Human Services area, there have been few specifics discussed on how to reach an agreement, even before the letters. During the weekend of May 21-22, Abeler and Senate HHS head David Hann sat at the table with Dayton to talk about their budget bill. “I said to him, maybe you’ll be signing our bill, but if you don’t, tell us what you don’t like. He didn’t then,” Abeler said. “I’m trying to get something done here.”
In the HHS veto letter, the longest of the bunch, Dayton railed on the Republicans’ $1.8 billion cut target as well as reductions to nursing homes and community-based long term care and the elimination of General Assistance Medical Care. He added that he would veto any bill that attempts to repeal the expansion of Medical Assistance made possible by his executive order.
“I find it unconscionable that this bill eliminates health care coverage for over 140,000 people,” the governor wrote. “If all of those losing coverage comprised a new community, it would be the third-largest city in Minnesota, far ahead of the populations of Rochester and Duluth.”
Abeler said the letter misrepresented the real effect of the bill. “It’s not losing coverage for 140,000 people, it’s just a different kind of coverage,” he said. The figure Dayton cites is based on Republicans’ proposal to effectively dissolve MinnesotaCare. Republicans would instead use the Health Care Access Fund to provide assistance to people in buying individual private health care plans.
“It’s a predictable, standard governor veto letter,” Abeler went on. “We are moving further from a resolution than closer.”
Garofalo said he was confused by his veto letter: “I thought we had a positive dialogue all session, especially on alternative licensure, and for some reason has taken a different tone now, and it’s just confusing.”
“To demonstrate the level of thoroughness of these letters, they didn’t even spell my name right,” Garofalo noted. (Indeed, his name is spelled “Garafolo” on the package.) “It’s like they wrote these letters in between episodes of ‘The Office.’”
In the education letter, Dayton said none of the provisions that he or Commissioner Brenda Cassellius desired were in the final bill, adding that the budget cuts school funding by $44 million below projected current-law 2012-13 funding. Garofalo said he is upset by Dayton’s characterization that Republicans are cutting education funding. “We are spending $450 million more in the next budget cycle,” he said. “That’s a load of crap.” (Garofalo’s claim is based on a net spending increase over 2010-11 funding levels.)
Garofalo said his fear is the governor is realizing that he “won’t get the taxes he wanted” and plans to cut education funding and use some of those dollars to help pay for human services. He will then try to pin the blame on Republicans, Garofalo claimed.
A ‘conciliatory’ tone
DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling, who has publicly criticized aspects of the governor’s approach in the past, said he took an appropriately “conciliatory” tone in his letters while being more aggressive in public.
“His letters were their internal message, but I think calling the first-termers extreme was the external message,” she said. “He was trying to bring it to the public.” Regarding Dayton’s remarks about a government shutdown, Greiling added, “I think he is demonstrating… that he is going to hang tough. He is not going to be a wimp about this. I think he is showing his muscles.”
DFL Rep. Erin Murphy said Dayton has kept a consistent tone, as he reiterated points in the letters that he has made repeatedly over the last few months. The most striking aspect of the veto messages, she said, was his definition of compromise. “That will be key moving forward with this Legislature,” she said.
One DFLer, however, wasn’t as impressed with Dayton’s letters, calling them a “laundry list” of issues that fail to highlight points of agreement to use as a “launching pad” to more civil negotiations.
“I don’t think anyone is surprised by the tone,” the member said, “but I guess I was hoping for something a bit more focused. I don’t want the government to shut down. No one does. But if he’s just trying to scare the Republicans, I think it’s working.”
With Dayton’s vetoes coming just 12 hours after the Legislature adjourned at midnight on Monday, Transportation Chairman Mike Beard admitted that he hadn’t had a chance to read his veto letter yet.
“At the end of the day, I probably could have written the veto letter myself,” he said. Beard said he knows the major concerns on the governor’s end are related to the Metropolitan Council and cuts to transit. If a global agreement is reached that includes more money, Beard said, it will go to fill that hole.
For now, Beard said, he is just happy to be back home in his district and talking to “real people” about how to reach a compromise. “The people in the dome are trained professionals, and they sometimes get disconnected from reality,” he said. “I just hope the governor can get away from letter writing and get out of town a bit, too.”
Crib notes: The Dayton veto letters
Transportation: Dayton’s veto letter of the transportation bill starts with a brief look at two areas of the bill the governor liked — increased funding for the highway trunk economic development account and the Better Roads Initiative. Most of the letter, however, is spent decrying the deep cuts to transit in the state, including the Metropolitan Council, rural transit funds and the elimination of the MnDOT Passenger Rail Office.
Jobs and Economic Development: Dayton opens the letter by thanking Republicans for sparing the Department of Labor and Industry from deep cuts and for adopting his position on three housing programs for the homeless. But he responds negatively to cuts to the Labor Department’s apprenticeship program, homebuyer counseling programs and the elimination of the Minnesota Trade Office, which he described as “unacceptable.”
State Government: While Dayton starts the veto letter by noting the recent progress made on the division’s budget, criticisms of the bill are included in multiple veto letters, specifically a 15 percent state workforce reduction that the governor strongly opposes. The governor notes that his administration has moved forward with a “Master RFP” to use data to improve government efficiency.
Environment, Energy and Natural Resources: Dayton writes that reductions to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Commerce would have “harmful” effects on the state. He adds that he wants more funds going to water and soil quality and preservation activities, invasive species prevention and forest management.
Higher Education: The Higher Education veto letter is the shortest of the nine letters and notes no points of agreement between the governor’s office and Republicans. Dayton describes the 19 percent cut to the University of Minnesota and the 14 percent cut to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system as “too extreme,” adding that funding for the state’s Office of Higher Education is too low. He also opposes a policy provision in the bills that prohibits the use of state or federal funds to support human cloning research.
Public Safety: While Dayton acknowledges a positive working relationship between Republicans and his commissioners on the public safety bill, as well as strong funding for the courts in the GOP budget, he criticizes the bill’s cuts to programs that hold felons accountable, the drug treatment program in Faribault, the Department of Corrections Operational Support Division, Civil Legal Services and the Department of Human Rights.
Taxes: Dayton criticizes the cuts to local government aid in the bill and what he says will be a rise in property taxes as a result. He also opposes changes to mineral tax laws and language included to re-establish an income tax reciprocity agreement with Wisconsin. He writes that he was happy to reach an agreement with Republicans on 2010 federal tax conformity.
Education: Dayton notes that Republicans worked well with his administration on the alternative teacher licensure bill signed earlier this year, but said he cannot sign a bill that “pits students against students or districts against districts.” He specifically calls out the elimination of integration funding and the move to freeze compensatory revenue, which is used to pay for free and low-cost lunches for low-income students. He expresses disappointment that his proposal to provide all-day kindergarten was not included and says the overall budget puts school funding at $44 million below the current-law statutory base.
Health and Human Services: Dayton rails against the HHS Republican budget proposal, from its overall $1.8 billion cut target to specific reductions to nursing homes and community-based long-term care programs and the elimination of GAMC. He adds that he would veto any future bill that attempt to repeal the expansion of Medicaid made possible by his executive order.