Friday, May 22, 2009

Coup De Guerre in Minnesota

It’s political war these days between the two major political parties, and recently most of the battles have ended in wins for the Democrats. But this past week has seen a remarkable come-from-behind triumph in Minnesota where the lone standing Republican statewide officeholder, Governor Tim Pawlenty, snatched an unexpected victory from the jaws of lip-smacking Democrats (called locally Democratic-Farmer-Laborites or DFLers) who control both houses of the state legislature.

Although this feat may not be duplicated in other states, demoralized GOP partisans across the nation are likely to take inspiration from this bold coup de guerre by the two-term conservative governor who vowed, even in the severe current recession, not to raise taxes.

Here is the background to this turning-point series of events: Pawlenty was elected to his second term in 2006 by a plurality when the Independence Party candidate took enough votes from his DFL opponent gave him the win for the second straight election. In 2002, Pawlenty won his first term under similar circumstances. Also in 2002, Republican Norm Coleman won a U.S. senate seat over Walter Mondale, a last-minute DFL candidate who replaced incumbent DFL Senator Paul Wellstone who had died tragically a few days before the election in a plane crash.. Nationally that year, President George W. Bush was at the height of his popularity following September 11. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and one house of the Minnesota legislature. Republicans also held most of the other statewide Minnesota offices that year. By 2006, however, Republican fortunes were in clear decline in this state and across the nation.

Norm Coleman’s senate re-election race is still not resolved seven months after election day, and Pawlenty had become an isolated figure in state government. Last year, his veto of a major transportation bill was overriden. In 2005, the governor and the legislature had come to a stand-off on raising taxes, a partial shutdown of state government followed, and an unpopular special session was called in which the governor agreed to increased “fees” to balance the state budget (although these fees were seen as actually new taxes, and the governor’s reputation with conservatives took a dip). The 2008 election brought new defeats to the state GOP, and to Republicans across the nation, accompanied by a popular new liberal Democratic president and an even larger lead for Democrats in the Congress. Talk a significant new income taxes to respond to the sharp current recession has been commonplace and new federal taxes are expected to be passed.

In Minnesota, DFL legislative leaders argued over how large the tax increases would be, and who would pay for them. It was expected that most of the taxes would fall on those with highest incomes and on businesses. But the DFL legislature (in its hubris?) went a further step, and decided it would propose tax increases across the boards. Pawlenty vowed none of them would get past his desk. Probably short of enough votes to override most of his vetoes, DFLers angled for an end-of-session showdown, assuming Pawently would have to compromise on the tax issue to avoid another very unpopular special session. Trying to paint Pawlenty as someone not facing reality, the DFL put maximum pressure on the stubborn governor.

Then Pawlenty dropped a political bombshell.

Invoking his constitutional powers, Pawlenty said there would be no new taxes and no special session, If the DFL did not cut spending to his liking, he would use his power of line item veto and the little used executive right of “unallotment” to balance the budget unilaterally. The legislature, if this happened, would not be able to override the governor, and his new budget would automatically take effect.

DFL leaders cried foul. The DFL speaker of the house (and the DFL’s leading candidate for governor in 2010) whined that the governor was trying to “bully” the legislature. Other DFLer screamed and hollered, but as one statewide political newsletter, Politics in Minnesota, proclaimed it: “Point, set and match” for Pawlenty.

On Monday night at midnight, the current session ended. The DFL majorities defiantly passed legislation to balance the budget by raising significant new taxes. The governor then stated he would veto the legislation and keep his promise to balance the budget himself, and not call a special session.

The dimensions of Pawlenty’s action are not yet visible, but it is a rare and potentially huge victory for those who want reduce the size, influence and financial cost of government. The line item vetoes will cut welfare aid and entitlements to many groups, and cut government aid to the arts and other special interests which had come to expect increased government help before the recession hit. The unallotment is likely to dramatically alter past funding assumptions.

Pawlenty’s cuts will be unpopular with some voters, most of whom always vote for the DFL. Most importantly, Pawlenty’s actions will likely be perceived, and opinion polls so far support this, as a necessary and good thing by many independent voters and taxpayers who have come to believe that the state’s income taxes and fees are already too high, especially in an economic recession where individual net worth has been diminished by lower home real estate values and the lower stock market on which IRAs and pensions are based.

The DFL leadership has seemed to be living in a pre-Ronald Reagan liberal fantasy where voters and taxpayers expect and even welcome higher taxes to pay for ever increasing state services, welfare (and now for recession deficits). Pawlenty’s coup would seem to bring this policy reverie to an end with a political thud.

In 2008, Pawlenty was the finalist with the governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate. Then a fresh face nationally, with obvious communication skills, an attractive working class background, and conservative credentials, he was reportedly keenly disappointed he was passed over. But it may have been a blessing in disguise. With his unexpected triumph on the tax issue in Minnesota, he could easily become the poster candidate for a Republican rebirth of economically conservative principles nationwide. Keep an eye on developments in Minnesota.

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