The 2010 Session of the Minnesota Legislature, the second session of the 2009-2010 Legislative Biennium, will officially begin on February 4. The second session of the biennium is usually shorter in length than the first session and is focused primarily on the bonding bill—the bill the state passes every two years to fund capital projects for Minnesota colleges and universities, prisons, parks and recreation areas, and other publicly owned infrastructure. While legislators will indeed focus intently on passing the bonding bill in 2010, other issues will also be top-of-mind and have a major impact on what unfolds in St. Paul.
Once again, the state is facing another budget deficit. In December, state finance officials said the deficit for the current two-year budget is $1.2 billion. The Minnesota Constitution requires a balanced state budget, so legislators and the governor must take action this year to eliminate the shortfall. In past sessions (see the next section of this column), bringing the state’s budget back into balance has proven to be a very difficult task.
Last session, with legislators and the governor at a standstill over how to balance the budget, Governor Pawlenty—in an unprecedented and controversial move—decided to balance the budget himself through an emergency budget cutting process called unallotment. However, late last year, in response to a lawsuit filed by six individuals whose government services were cut as a result of unallotment, a Ramsey County judge ruled that Pawlenty overstepped his authority in balancing the budget without input from the Legislature. The ramifications of the judge’s ruling are huge, as it could eventually require all $2.7 billion in budget cuts enacted by the governor last year to be restored. This would throw the state budget deeper into the red. The governor is appealing the judge’s ruling, and the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case on March 15.
As mentioned at the beginning of this column, legislators will pass a bonding bill this year (which must be passed with three-fifths of the Legislature approving). Governor Pawlenty will then choose to sign the bill in its entirety or veto all or parts of the bill. Recent bonding bills passed by the Legislature have approached or exceeded $1 billion. While some legislators will argue that a bill of this magnitude is needed in 2010 to create jobs and stimulate the economy, others will say it is fiscally irresponsible to pass a $1 billion bonding bill when the state has a budget deficit and families are struggling to make ends meet. Arguments will also be made over whether certain projects included in the bill are legitimate state expenditures or “pork” projects designed to win the votes of certain legislators and aid the re-election campaigns of vulnerable incumbents.
When Governor Tim Pawlenty announced last year that he would not seek a third term, numerous legislators from both sides of the aisle immediately began jockeying for potential gubernatorial runs. Currently, approximately two dozen candidates are in the race, many of them sitting legislators in leadership roles. In the spring, while trying to bring the session to a successful conclusion, these legislators and other gubernatorial candidates will also vie for the endorsement of the activists that make up the bases of their respective political parties. The endorsement process will be heated and intensely competitive, with the candidates doing everything they can to appeal politically to party activists. What legislation gets debated and ultimately passed this session will, without a doubt, be connected to and impacted by the gubernatorial campaign. Of course, the potential campaign for president being weighed (or conducted, depending on your point of view) by Governor Pawlenty will also be a factor.
Whatever happens at the Capitol this session, you can bet that the Center for Rural Policy and Development will be following matters closely and keeping our members up-to-date on legislation impacting rural Minnesota.
(Brad Finstad is executive director of the Center for Rural Policy and Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)