New governor, legislature face $6.2 billion deficit



When Mark Dayton takes office as Minnesota’s new governor January 3, and the new legislature is sworn in January 4, a grim task awaits: how to craft a budget in the face of a projected $6.2 billion deficit.

“This is going to be tough. This is a crisis,” Dayton said during a visit to the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation delegate meeting December 8.

The new Republican majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate likely will continue to insist that the state solve the budget crisis without raising taxes – but that’s the rigid ideological stance that helped create the budget mess in the first place.

“I will continue to insist that taxes be collected more progressively,” Dayton said at a State Capitol news conference December 8, his first public comments after the State Canvassing board certified his election.

Minnesota’s unions, along with the faith community and nonprofits, will continue to maintain that the state can’t meet the budget crisis only by making budget cuts – advocating that raising revenue fairly must be part of the solution.

“There’s no way to solve the over $6 billion deficit with cuts alone,” said Jim Niland, legislative political action director for AFSCME Council 5. “That’s going to be our biggest initiative – pushing revenue as part of the final budget deal.”

“The majorities are close enough in both houses there’s going to be the fiscal reality that  they can’t get there through cuts alone,” Niland said, “especially with the power of the governor in the mix.”

If the Republicans try to muscle through their own budget, “the veto is tremendously powerful,” Niland said. “Pawlenty certainly has shown that.”

Labor and its allies will be counting on the threat of a Dayton veto to not just to safeguard state programs and services from draconian budget cuts, but also to defend against anticipated attacks on workplace safety rules and other labor protections, including prevailing wage.

“As Pawlenty showed, the governor has tremendous influence, even with the legislature in the hands of the opposing party,” Niland said.

“What we’re going to do is all of us within labor – public employees, educators, building trades – we’re all going to stick together,” said Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council.”

Labor representatives cited one issue where they hope to find common ground with the Republican majorities: jobs.

“The football stadium and opportunities where employment can be achieved will be our priorities,” Melander said.

“We’ll do what we do every session,” Melander said, “try to represent the interests of our members.”

“It all depends on our ability to convince these legislators that our agenda is good not only for our members, but good for Minnesota.”

“The Republicans that are now the majority in the legislature ran on jobs,” noted Kyle Makarios, political director for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters. “We’re going to put some proposals in front of them to create jobs.”

“They’ve got a reasonably narrow majority and a Democratic governor,” he observed. “Now’s the time when we’re really going to be relying on the friends of ours who are Republicans to carry some extra water for us.”

“Some of us have been working hard to reach out to moderate Republicans to see if we can find some common ground,” Makarios said. “That work will be even more important now that they have a majority.”

New Republican legislative leaders: Kurt Zellers, Amy Koch

The new Republican leaders of the legislature will be Kurt Zellers, Speaker of the House, and Amy Koch, Senate Majority Leader. Neither one returned calls from the Labor Review requesting an interview.

Zellers, Maple Grove, will be in his fifth term in the Minnesota House. In 2009, he earned an AFL-CIO voting record of zero percent – opposing the AFL-CIO position on every vote tracked. In 2010, his AFL-CIO voting record was 12 percent, resulting from his votes for a jobs bill and for a temporary reprieve for General Assistance Medical Care. After four terms in the House, Zellers’ lifetime AFL-CIO voting record is 8 percent.

Koch, Buffalo, will be in her third term in the Minnesota Senate. She earned a 22 percent AFL-CIO voting record in 2009. In 2010, she earned a 20 percent AFL-CIO voting record, thanks to votes for a jobs bill and the Omnibus Health and Human Services Bill. Her lifetime AFL-CIO voting record is 18 percent.

“The Republicans now need to step up to the plate and govern,” said Representative Paul Thissen, Minneapolis, who will be the House Minority Leader.

Republicans will have a majority on every House committee. They  changed the committee structure in the House and even gave some of the committees suggestive new names, such as the “Health and Human Services Reform Committee” and the “Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee” and the “Education Reform Committee.”

“They were elected with a lot of money coming from corporate interests,” Thissen noted. “I’m very worried the agenda they’re going to pursue will be one favoring corporate interests instead of average working families.”

“I think it’s all about playing defense,” Thissen said.

“There are going to be aggressive attacks on our labor laws and we will need to push back hard,” he feared.

“We’re going to be fighting hard this whole session to make sure the rights labor has won over several generations will be preserved in this state and that the solutions we come up with for the budget deficit treat working families fairly,” Thissen said.

Five votes to a pro-labor majority in the House

On a hopeful note, Thissen pointed out, in the House “we’re within five votes of having a majority on any particular issue.”

Some of those votes might be coming from the handful of moderate Republicans, including Representative Jim Abeler of Anoka, who was re-elected to a seventh term this year (with AFL-CIO endorsement). Abeler this session will chair the important Health and Human Services Finance Committee.

“The big area of conflict is going to be about revenue,” Abeler said. “The majority of Minnesotans voted for a governor who said he wanted to raise taxes. The majority of Minnesotans voted for legislators who are not about to. That’s going to create a lot of conflict.”

“Each side says they care about jobs and the economy,” Abeler noted. But, he added, “you’ll find a huge divide about how Democrats and Republicans would go about helping the economy.”

“The part I’m going to play is in internal discussions,” within his caucus, he related, educating his Republican colleagues “that labor is not to blame for all our economic woes.”

“I’ll build bridges everywhere with labor and my caucus and the new governor,” Abeler said.

“Business needs labor and labor needs business,” Abeler commented. “Instead of both sides digging in, they both need to be reasonable.”

Abeler maintained: “When the decisions get made, the decisions get made not at the fringes, but where you can see the faces of both sides.”

Save the date: Union lobby days

Several unions have begun plans for 2011 lobby days: Minnesota AFL-CIO, February 16 (tentative); Minnesota Nurses Association, March 1; AFSCME Council 5, March 22.