In hard times idealism still matters


The Minnesota legislature adjourned the 2009-2010 session on May 17. The major focus of our work was addressing an additional mid-cycle $1 billion deficit. Just 10 days before session was constitutionally required to end, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the Governor’s 2009 unallotment actions were illegal. This was an important victory upholding a fundamental aspect of our system, the balance of powers between the branches of government. However, our budget-balancing task was greatly complicated and tripled in one fell swoop.

It was solely up to the legislature to protect our core principles of compassion and opportunity. It was also solely up to the legislature conclude the session with some measure of civility. Minnesotans have long since made clear their impatience with total gridlock and mean-spirited partisanship. In light of the fact that only one party has been responsible for that dynamic, someone had to play the part of the grown up, leverage as much as possible to protect those most vulnerable, and take our case for change, especially in the executive branch, to the people. We can be especially proud of the fact that health care for the tens of thousands of people whom the Governor would completely disregard was protected.

The Federal health care reform bill just passed by Congress and the President provides certain states, including Minnesota, the ability to transition low-income residents from state-level health care to coverage under Medicaid. The addition of federal support would allow Minnesota to regain $7.45 federally for every Minnesota dollar invested (as much as $1.4 billion). 20,000 Minnesotans who now lack coverage would have health care. The final package provides a way for this Governor, or failing his action, the next Governor, to take advantage of this opportunity.

We succeeded in thwarting the Governor and his legislative allies’ attempts to permanently shift billions away from public K-12 education. Additionally, we put a stop to deeper, long lasting cuts to higher education. It is hard to imagine what could have been more damaging to our long term economic prosperity than those two actions.

The Governor would have totally wiped out emergency assistance for the poorest, access to rural dental services, important nutrition supports, help for families needing child care, facilities for the mentally ill and disabled, services for children struggling with mental health. He was seeking devastating cuts to nursing homes and hospitals, help for families with disabled children, wiping out physical, occupational and speech therapy for thousands, including the elderly. We told him no.

To better support our schools, we passed legislation to correct the inequity of the very few, very wealthiest paying so much less than the rest of Minnesotans. Unfortunately, the Governor again protected the rich and vetoed that bill. Lacking three Republican votes to override in the House, that veto would not be overcome. Nor would any other.

Barney Frank wisely counseled at the recent DFL Humphrey Day dinner that it is a moral imperative for the idealistic to be wise and strategic in pursuit of their hopes and aspirations for our country. After all, he asks, what good does it do to have ideals if they’re never going to become actual laws and policies. In a “pox on all your houses” anti-incumbency year, the risk of alienating the average Minnesota voter by forcing an acrimonious, contentious, ugly special session was absolute. One can be sure that legislators in swing districts, particularly those new to office who perhaps rode the Obama crest in, would have a heck of a time coming back. No one who cares about working people, about a future where expanding opportunity, social and economic justice for Minnesotans can think that losing our strong majority is a good idea.

Sugar coating would be disingenuous. Much of what was contained in the end, particularly those service cuts that will create difficulty for many people, was less than ideal. But I carry the hope that our next Governor and legislature will have greater respect for doing what is right for the state, no matter the politics involved. Despite the current Governor’s legacy that will leave us with a $6 billion deficit, I am optimistic that the next Governor, perhaps someone from my own legislative district, will work hard to support vibrant communities, good-paying jobs, strong schools, in a state where neighbors come together to build people up and create a community where everyone is respected and valued.