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Wheeling and dealing brought fiscal hardliners on board

Briana Bierschbach//July 27, 2011

Wheeling and dealing brought fiscal hardliners on board

Briana Bierschbach//July 27, 2011

Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski emerged as a hard-line leader in the House. In a recent op-ed in the Winona Daily News, Drazkowski wrote that he had managed to garner majority caucus support for a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds “super-majority” in both chambers to increase taxes. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

GOP fiscal conservatives were lobbied hard —  and given promisesfor their budget votes

Ever since the latter days of the 2011 regular session, it was clear to lobbyists, staffers and other Capitol watchers that the main limitation on the ability of GOP legislative leaders to cut a budget deal was the hard line on spending adopted by numerous members of their freshman-dominated majority caucuses.

So it was hardly a surprise when that same contingent — reportedly a dozen or so members in the House, and eight in the Senate — offered the most resistance to the deal that ended the longest state government shutdown in recent U.S. history.

Many of the Republican majorities’ more conservative members winced at the overall spending in the budget – which toppled the $34.2 billion figure they reluctantly swallowed during session, climbing to around $35.7 billion in the final package – while some of their more moderate colleagues protested the move to borrow hundreds of millions from the state’s school districts to help fill the remaining hole. With many DFLers refusing to vote for the proposal, the pressure was on the GOP leadership to convince their members to accept the deal they had hatched with Gov. Mark Dayton.

And though both House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch pledged publicly that their caucuses would support the budget agreement, it took more than a little scrambling on their parts to bring the more recalcitrant members of the “not a penny more” group on board for the deal.

During the five-day period between the announcement of a budget “framework” on Thursday, July 14, and its passage last Tuesday, sources say, it took the sales efforts of key caucus members as well as political promises from leadership to sway on-the-fence Republicans. In the Senate GOP caucus, efforts to round up the requisite number of votes weren’t completed until the afternoon recess that followed the beginning of Tuesday’s special session.

“There were tools used that none of us were happy about,” said freshman GOP Sen. Ted Lillie, who reportedly invented the “not a penny more” slogan and poster that appeared around both chambers late in the regular session. “In order to get ourselves to a point we could vote for those tools, we did have to have some agreements and did address some concerns going forward that we would change how we do things.”

A House of discontent

In the House, GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski emerged as the leader of the more hard-line conservative discontent.

In a recent op-ed in the Winona Daily News, Drazkowski wrote he was “deeply disturbed” by the spending in the final budget, but had managed to garner a “full commitment from the House majority caucus” that it would support a 2012 bill for a constitutional amendment to limit the state’s ability to raise taxes by requiring a two-thirds “super-majority” vote in both chambers. The Mazeppa Republican was also the rabble rouser during session who took up the “Not a Penny More” banner in his caucus to demonstrate members’ resolve to stick with the GOP’s $34.2 billion budget.

“I think really this commitment moving forward originated from the pause that was evident in some members of our caucus over this budget,” Drazkowski said this week. The constitutional amendment will be the cornerstone of what Drazkowski is calling Republican’s “Reform 2.0” project, which members will start talking about across the state in the next few weeks. That will include a broad range of government reforms starting with a comprehensive review of the state’s services and a redefinition of “essential” government operations.

Freshman Eagan GOP Rep. Doug Wardlow aided Drazkowski in his quest to sway the caucus.

“The budget we passed is too large,” Wardlow said. “I would not have supported it but for an assurance that going forward, we are on track for significant reforms that reduce the size and scope of government. The supermajority requirement to raise taxes will be one of the very first things we take up next year. Rep. Drazkowski and I worked very hard to get a commitment from the majority caucus that that would be the case. That was important for a lot of members.”

But while there is a pledge from the likes of Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean, not everyone is thrilled with the promise. Health and Human Services Chair Jim Abeler expressed hesitation over requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, suggesting a 60 percent majority instead. Abeler was one of six House Republicans to vote with DFLers to override former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax in 2008.

“I wasn’t part of those discussions, but some people really wanted [the constitutional amendment],” he said. “In the end, the people have to decide. Will people vote for that? I don’t know.” He added, ultimately, “We have to govern.”

One GOP lobbyist says moderate members in the House, while likely to vote for any package to end the shutdown, were happy with the inclusion of the bonding bill. Many House Republicans introduced individual bonding projects during session, but fell in line with the caucus’ overall message that this year was not the right time to do a large bonding bill. The final bonding package will kick-start projects in many GOP districts, including renovations at college campuses across the state, a veteran’s cemetery in southeastern Minnesota, flood mitigation funds and around $43 million in local bridge and road repairs.

Votes ‘nip and tuck’ in the Senate

On the Senate side, votes to pass the deal were by no means a certainty, even on the day of the special session. Rumblings in local newspapers and around the Capitol suggested serious reservations from strict conservative members and moderates alike in the Senate GOP caucus.

“Everything that I had heard was the House had the votes to pass it, the governor wanted to pass it and we were pretty close on votes in the Senate,” said GOP freshman Sen. Al DeKruif. “But it was nip and tuck.”

A major concern for DeKruif and a handful of other GOP senators – including fellow first-termers Dave Brown and Jeremy Miller – was the additional $780 million added to the K-12 school shift as part of the final deal.

DeKruif proposed during caucus that the state use revenues generated from a racino to start paying the school shift back sooner rather than later. While several senators, including Senate Finance Chair Claire Robling, believed there was a majority of votes to pass the racino in the chamber, there wasn’t a supermajority of votes, which would have been required to suspend the rules in order to add it to the schedule. According to one longtime Capitol observer who was counting votes, there were as many as 28 Republicans and 10 Democrats who would have supported racino legislation tied to paying back the school shift.

“Currently there is a provision in the law to pay back the school shift,” said DeKruif, “but I see a flat economy moving forward. I’m very concerned about our ability to pay that back, and I’m going to continue with my pursuit of that. I think that it’s important that we come up with a plan to pay. There was discussion of it in caucus, but at the end of the day it wasn’t on the agenda.”

But caucus head Koch was seen entering a private meeting with a handful of racino supporters during the caucus meeting. When she came out of the room, the caucus had the votes to pass the budget.

Another sticking point in the budget was the overall level of spending, especially in the health and human services bill, a sector many freshmen and hard-line conservatives hoped to rein in considerably this session. The bill was a major topic of discussion in the roughly three hour caucus meeting. In that case, it was HHS Chair David Hann’s conservative bona fides that pulled votes in.

“[Hann] had spearheaded that process. He is very well respected amongst the hard core conservatives; that frankly helped a lot. He presented the bill eloquently, and said we kind of need to be a team here,” a GOP Capitol hand said.

Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Dave Thompson said that while there wasn’t a formal discussion of the tax constitutional amendment in the Senate, members stressed that serious reforms of that sort must be sought in the next session.

“There was certainly discussion of what kind of things we can do in the future to try and atone for some of the spending we did this year,” Thompson said.  “We need to make it more difficult for government to spend money.”

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