Last January, I was asked to make a wish list for the coming legislative session which has now (maybe?) come to a close. While I had a number of specific policy initiatives I wanted to see lawmakers act upon, I had one overriding piece of advice: Think big.
Well, some folks at the Capitol must have been listening because there was some big thinking going on up there these past four months about the environment, taxes, transportation, and education. Seeking to rectify the growing regressiveness of Minnesota’s tax system, Democrats passed legislation raising income taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans while providing critically needed relief for working families and homeowners living on fixed incomes trying to keep up with annual double-digit property tax increases, themselves a result of deep and regressive cuts in Minnesota’s state aid to cities. They also proposed ways to fund mass transit — the Twin Cities are quickly turning into the most congested urban area in the country — and to lower the costs of attending state colleges.
Unfortunately, the Governor was thinking big, too, except he wasn’t thinking big about the state, he was thinking big about his own personal ambitions. Taking a page from the Bush playbook, he vetoed proposals that had the overwhelming backing of Minnesotans — like the proposed changes in income taxes — or forced the DFL to back off other proposals for transportation and education that also had strong public support. All so he can head to the 2008 Republican national convention and be able to proclaim that he kept his “no new taxes” pledge (not to be confused, of course, with a “no new fees” pledge he apparently did not take), even at the cost of the future of the state he purportedly leads. While this may prove to be smart politics in the long run (though I personally doubt his gambit is going to pay off), from a policy standpoint, it is nothing short of disgraceful. Like Bush, a chastened Pawlenty last fall proclaimed that the election had opened his eyes to the need to walk, yea, in the paths of bi-partisanship. Since then — again like Bush — he has continued to operate in the narrowly ideological, highly partisan mode that characterized his first term.
Still, the session was not without its bright spots. In terms of environmental policy it was, arguably, the most significant in Minnesota’s history. From the historic “25-by-25” renewable energy bill spearheaded by Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), to initiatives to cap and then reduce carbon emissions, to an energy efficiency bill that mandates that utilities cut their use of fossil fuels, it’s been a good year for green legislation. Fortunately, Pawlenty chose not to stand in the way of these bills.
On the other hand, none of these green policy initiatives entails an increase in taxes or spending, so his acquiescence was hardly a profile in courage. In a previous blog I referred to Pawlenty as Macho Man; at the moment, Little Big Man seems more apt. Given the field of midgets currently clogging up the race for the GOP Presidential nomination, Pawlenty’s smallness may prove beautiful — at least among that party’s dwindling base. I suspect the general electorate will not be similarly impressed. To paraphrase an old saying, a Governor all wrapped up in himself makes a mighty small package.