Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Session Wrap-Up and Analysis. Buckle up, folks. This might be a long one. It's less than 24 hours after the curtain came down on the 2009 Legislative regular (note that) session and I've had time to reflect and read through some of the other session analyses, so I am ready to go.

As I've said and written before, I often find myself thinking about legislative sessions the same way I think about baseball seasons. In baseball, I remember the season Pete Rose had a 44-game hitting streak, or the year the Twins went from worst to first, or the year my all-time baseball hero Hank Aaron hit his 715th HR (against the Dodgers' Al Downing for those of you hungry for another useless tidbit of information). In legislative terms, I think of 1981 and all of its special sessions. I think of the billion dollar tax cut of 1985. I think of 2001 and the Ventura administration's "big plan (which we still regret)."

So how does the 2009 Legislative Session stack up in baseball terms? After thinking about it, I think the apt comparison would be the 1994 baseball season, when the players went on strike on August 12 and as a result the World Series was cancelled. I'm not going to go as far as to say which governmental branch (Legislature or Executive) went on "strike," but like the baseball situation in 1994, neither side in the intellectual fray could find a way to bridge the gap and, as a result, there was no pay-off.

It's not that big a stretch to say this session was, if not doomed, certainly on the precipice of complication since its beginning. First, there was the unprecedented $4.6 (then $6.4) billion deficit. Second, there was the fallout from the 2008 election, which, as it energized the national Democratic forces and ideas, similarly emboldened the majority caucuses in both the House and Senate. Third, there was the residual effect of the election as most moderate Republicans, both nationally and in Minnesota (although the trend started in 2006), lost their elections to Democrats while Republicans in safely Republican districts returned, making the Republican caucuses (again both in Minnesota and nationally) more conservative. Add to this framework the federal stimulus package and all the confusion caused for state level policy makers in trying to make this welcome, but unwieldy, infusion of revenue and you could see why there were complications aplenty.

Much is going to be made of the personalities in the process in the next coming days, especially Senator Pogemiller (who was vilified and held responsible for the break-down by a couple of Republican Senators right after the session) and Governor Pawlenty (who, if he is not running for President is certainly making it look that way). Personalities are part of the system and always have been. The Governor has a right to run for President and Senator Pogemiller, as leader of his caucus, has a right to lead his caucus and stand for both his, and his caucus' principles. I guess what I'm trying to say is that different personalities and different viewpoints have always been part of the process. What made this year different is that so many factors came together that they created a (oh, I hate this hackneyed term) "perfect storm" in which the personality variables made things just that much more difficult.

I am going to finish off this chapter of my analysis with a factor that probably had more to do with the clumsy ending than anything else and that was the inability of the legislative majorities to work across their respective bodies to assemble a cohesive and singular message with which to combat the Governor. The Senate came out early with their package of huge cuts, tax increases, and no shifts or use of one-time money. This was a very noble gesture, but it was too extreme to be politically palatable. Once the Governor suggested the shift of education payments, the possibility of it became very likely. It's not good policy, but it is better than a base cut and it provides the state with a big chunk of money with which to solve the deficit.

The House actually went further than the Governor in terms of the shift, not so much to avoid cuts, but to retain the integrity of the one-time money in the health care access fund and to avoid the bonding-for-cash proposal put forward by the Governor. It was pointed out a lot during the session that both the Senate and the House cut more in terms of state spending than the Governor did in his budget proposal. The Governor did have a considerable portion of revenue expended with several tax-cutting proposals, raided the health care access fund, and, as stated above, proposed that the state bond against the revenue in the state coffers that emanated from the tobacco settlement. He actually put close to an additional $200 million in education spending, with most of his cuts coming to health and human services.

The verbal serve-and-volley that took place over the past month centered on what the Republicans called "misplaced priorities" and accused the DFLers of continuing to fund a bloated health and human services system at the expense of education. There is more to this than meets the eye. I believe it's important to recall the federal debate on S-CHIP (the federal health plan that provides coverage to children in lower and lower-middle class families) and how that relates to the larger picture when it comes to the design and delivery of health and human services programs.

One point of contention in the federal debate is that Republicans believe that if programs like S-CHIP begin to reach into the middle class, it will create a client base for the federal program and that will erode, at least in theory, the private sector role in health care. It's the same argument that plays into the Social Security debate. I believe Social Security benefits should be means-tested, but I also acknowledge that if the benefits are means-tested, some segments of the middle class who no longer qualify for the same benefit level my withdraw their support for the program. I've rambled, but this is a battle for the middle class, and (I'm riffing here) conservatives believe that once a government program finds its way into the middle class, it is extremely dfficult to eliminate, making overall government spending difficult to cut, making the delivery of tax cuts more challenging.

At any rate, it wasn't until the last couple of weeks that the Senate and House majorities began to work with each other in earnest. The Senate simply could not maintain its cut-intensive position, which left them, to some extent, on the outside looking in when it came to determine the actual content of the spending bills. In other words, what the Senate did was a useful exercise (I would say a very useful exercise), but the implausibility of it actually becoming law put a real dent in the Senate's ability to help dictate the final content on a number of bills. The big exception to this pattern was in the tax bill, where the Senate was a full partner in the construction of each of the tax bills that went to the Governor.

It's getting late, so I will sign off for now, but I plan on composing another entry tomorrow to talk about some other observations about the session.


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