In December 2010, as the Capitol was being submerged in what would ultimately be 17 inches of snow, the DFL House caucus held its first meeting with Gov.-elect Mark Dayton. The gathering was intended as a means for legislators to meet the incoming governor and discuss the looming legislative session.
But Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, had a different topic on his mind: why the DFL lost 25 House seats and control of the Legislature. At one point, when Pelowski persisted in pushing the issue, Dayton ceded the floor to the veteran legislator, according to two individuals who were present for the gathering.
“I wanted to push the discussion to why we lost 25 seats,” recalled Pelowski, when asked about the incident. “There wasn’t really a goal for that, and I think people were a little on edge with the blizzard.”
Pelowski declined to give any more specifics about the incident — “what’s said in caucus should stay in caucus,” he said — but it’s emblematic of his more than two decades at the Capitol. The 14-term incumbent is not one to mince words when something is on his mind.
It’s a style that has frequently been on display during this legislative session as Pelowski has chaired the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee. During 14 hearings on the higher education budget, Pelowski repeatedly peppered top university officials — including University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Minnesota Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone — with tough questions about administrative costs, tuition increase and student debt.
During one particularly robust exchange last month, Pelowski badgered former Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, who is now director of the Office of Higher Education, about why tuitions costs have risen at three times the rate of inflation over the last decade. “Apparently money was poured in, money was poured in by historic amounts by the students, and it appears that hasn’t solved the problem,” Pelowski said during the hearing. “And so, Director Pogemiller, I’m not convinced that just pouring more money in gives us anything.”
Pogemiller insists that he bears no hard feelings over the confrontational line of questioning. “I think he’s a strong chair,” Pogemiller said. “I like chairs who are definite in their opinions.”
Tuition freeze for MnSCU and U of M
Pelowski’s scrupulous vetting of the higher education budget paid dividends Thursday when it passed off the House floor with bipartisan support. All DFLers were joined by 15 Republicans in voting for the measure. Perhaps more telling, just one member of Pelowski’s committee, Rep. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville, voted against the bill.
The $2.7 billion finance bill increases spending on higher education by $150 million in the next biennium. That includes $1.2 billion for the MnSCU system, $1 billion for the U of M and $320 million for the state’s tuition assistance program. That’s about $110 million less than both the governor and the Senate want to allocate for higher education. Those differences will now need to be hashed out in a conference committee.
But most importantly, from Pelowski’s point of view, the House bill includes a two-year freeze on tuition for both MnSCU and the U of M. “Tuition and debt have been the burdens of higher education in this state for the better part of a decade,” Pelowski said. “Those are the biggest issues that we’ve seen.”
Pelowski’s cantankerous personality has not always served him so well at the Legislature. When a new U of M campus was being proposed for Rochester last decade, Pelowski was among the most vocal skeptics of the project. He infamously referred to the economic development claims associated with the project as “fu fu dust.” (That was long before that phrase became associated with shoddy projections for how much revenue electronic pulltabs would bring in to pay for the Vikings stadium.)
Pelowski’s skepticism became an issue in the 2006 campaign. An editorial in the Rochester Post-Bulletin — noting that Pelowski would likely be in line to become chair of the higher education committee, a post he’d previously held during the 1997-98 session — was headlined “DFL-controlled Legislature could derail Roch U plans.”
DFLers did retake the House, but Pelowski was denied the higher education gavel. Instead he was appointed chair of a committee dealing with government operations and elections. Pelowski believes that his criticism of the Rochester campus probably lost him the higher education gavel at the time.
“That’s too bad,” Pelowski said. “Because if we had had a chair there that was really interested in doing what we’re doing now, we may not have been in this big a hole.”
With DFLers retaking the majority, Margaret Anderson Kelliher was elected speaker of the House following the 2006 election. Pelowski would become one of her most pointed critics. In particular, he took issue with the caucus’ strategy during the 2009 session to pass legislation that included significant tax increases, even though they were certain to be vetoed by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
“She had five votes on a tax increase, none of which were going to become law,” Pelowski said. “Pawlenty had them vetoed before they left the chamber. I disagreed with her approach. I think her approach lost us 25 seats and put us in the minority.”
Pelowski’s independent streak has often put him odds with organized labor. In 2009, AFSCME Council 5 — one of the state’s largest and most politically active unions — endorsed Winona City Council member Debbie White over the incumbent. The press release announcing the move stated that Pelowski “treats his constituents with contempt.” But White dropped her candidacy before the first round of balloting at the DFL endorsing convention owing to a lack of support.
More scrutiny ahead for higher ed
But with DFLers regaining control of the House last year — and Kelliher no longer in the Legislature — Pelowski regained the higher education gavel this session. That led to the 14 hearings on the higher education budget. Pelowski intends to hold further hearings outside of session to consider further financial issues, including what he views to be exorbitant salaries for some campus administrators. Republicans on the committee express admiration for his strict fiscal oversight.
“I think we’ve been on a similar page in terms of bringing accountability to some of the bonuses and the administrative salary increases, which then piled on to student debt,” said Rep. Glen Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, who sits on the higher education committee. “I definitely believe he’s headed the committee in the right direction in terms of accountability and an understanding of where the money goes that we provide for the university in a time when families are struggling to meet their basic needs.”
Lobbyists aren’t always as complimentary about Pelowski’s style. They’ve been known to express fear about paying a visit it to his office. “He does not suffer fools at all,” said veteran lobbyist Sandra Neren, of Messerli & Kramer, a Pelowski admirer. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, he’ll take you apart.”
Any hard feelings that may have been established during Pelowski’s initial brusque encounter with Dayton apparently have been smoothed over with time. Last May, Dayton visited Pelowski’s office to discuss the Vikings stadium and the tax bill. Talk turned to Pelowski’s extensive collection of golf memorabilia, including numerous vintage Kenneth Smith clubs. Dayton pointed out that his father golfed with Kenneth Smith clubs.
Pelowski ultimately voted for the Vikings bill. And earlier this month, he stopped by the governor’s office to pick up a four wood engraved with the initials of Bruce Bliss Dayton. That club is now a part of Pelowski’s collection.