Game over


I spent the evening of the presidential elections of 2000 in an open-air bar in Mexico. As one might expect, I was surrounded by other Americans. My table-mates and I — backpack travelers who had met only recently — took turns spouting our liberal ideals to each other (see “preaching to the choir”), while our fellow compatriots on a business trip stood at the bar, cheering loudly every time a state went red on the map.

There were introductions and polite conversation between the two groups, and the businessmen even bought us an expensive round of good tequila shots — and then another. After one late red-state victory, however, one fellow turned to me and jovially said, “It’s like a sport, isn’t it? It’s like a football game!” His team was winning, and he was enjoying the spectacle.

I couldn’t help myself — I got on my high horse and replied angrily: “It’s not anything like a sport, it’s our national elections, and you shouldn’t look at it that way!” (My table-mates failed the civic participation test even worse when they revealed — after hours of scathing indictments against Republicans and their supporters — that they hadn’t bothered to vote.)

It’s a prime example of our distorted American mindset in which politics trump governing. The phenomenon is sustained by the media, politicians and voters alike. Political discussion is reduced to us vs. them, issues are either black or white (or red or blue), and the pursuit of political gain itself becomes the goal of governing.

The recent legislative tug of war between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty had its fair share of politicking. When the battle of wills was over, both sides stood pointing fingers at the other over lost tax relief, local government aid (LGA) and transportation improvements.

Much of the blame does belong to the governor; his heavy-handed vetoes left not pet projects and minor expenditures, but major, necessary appropriations — like aid that municipalities large and small depend on — on the cutting room floor. His argument against including inflation in budget forecasts — especially when it does show up on the bottom line as revenues — simply doesn’t make sense. (Here’s a basic question: When was the last time inflation didn’t increase from year to year?) It smacks more of political ploy than sound policy, but the check-mate vetoes, paired with the goal-line stand of his apparent refusal to call a special session, seems to have pinned the Legislature to the mat until next year’s match.

Is this exciting enough for you? I could mix another round of sports metaphors.

On the other hand, it’s easy, especially in the Democratic stronghold of Minneapolis, to play this blame game. Legislators cheer their work on the session, completed on time, they note, after recent years of special sessions and grumbling about legislative stalemates. But is a bill worth cheering if it doesn’t become law? One could argue that, although some compromises were made, the Legislature shot the moon, calling the governor’s bluff — only to find he wasn’t bluffing.

It’s the people of Minnesota who lose this game. Like it or not, the legislative process includes the governor’s signature. The machine of state government does not produce results without it.

I’m not saying that the legislative standoff was nothing but political jockeying — a lot of hard work went into this session, and some important legislation came out of it, some thanks to compromise and bi-partisan partnerships. But at the end of the day (and the legislative session), it’s where the rubber hits the road that matters. Basic legislation — like funding for transportation and cities, the smallest of which rely heavily on LGA to fill out their budgets — cannot just be left to die on the floor of the State Capitol, no matter how wide the gap in political ideology.

Unfortunately, that gap cannot be spanned by a round of tequila shots (another recent session proved that). What’s needed is for the governor to call a special session and work with legislative leaders to deliver on these basic needs with signed legislation and funding. It’s not a game; it’s what we pay them to do.