Senior state legislators unloaded with both barrels at Pawlenty appointees yesterday at a hearing held by the House of Representatives’ Finance Committee, frustrated by apparent stonewalling by the Pawlenty-appointed heads of state agencies. The hearing had originally been convened to gather information on what elements of the budget could be cut in efforts to close this year’s $231 million budget deficit, a process called “unallotting.”
Alice Seagren, the Commissioner of Education repeatedly told legislators that she had not concerned herself with the fate of millions of dollars in state aid to local school districts because the money was not directly spent by the Department of Education. House Majority Leader Tony Sertich (DFL-Hibbing) lambasted her presentation as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while [state government] should be paying attention to the looming iceberg” of potentially crippling cuts to school funding.
Speaker of the House Margaret Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) repeatedly pressed Seagren on the fate of school districts that might run out of money if their state aid was cut for the rest of the year. When Seagren professed no knowledge of cuts’ possible impact, Kelliher sharply pointed out that oversight of the public schools and leadership on education policy are part of Seagren’s job as Commissioner of Education.
“Alice does her homework,” Rep. Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville) said in an interview Monday afternoon. “She was obviously told to stonewall” by Governor Palwenty.
Many other commissioners or their representatives repeated Seagren’s performance, saying cuts they would recommend to the governor were “still being worked out,” even though the first round of cuts could come as early as Friday.
While the state legislature has no constitutionally-mandated role in trying to close the budget deficit this year, Speaker Kelliher, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis), and Governor Tim Pawlenty have been publicly declaring their desire to work together in finding a solution since the scale of the deficit was announced two weeks ago.
“I thought this was going to be a two-way street,” an exasperated Sertich told Seagren.
Greiling said the hearing “told me the governor doesn’t plan to work with the legislature” in deciding what parts of this year’s budget will be cut. “Once legislators figured out [the hearing] was a sham,” she said, “they didn’t stick around.”
“It sounds like we’ll find out on Friday what the governor decides to unallot, and the Legislature will have no input,” said Rep. Thomas Huntly (DFL-Duluth). Governor Pawlenty will have to make his first round of decisions Friday because significant amounts of aid to cities and towns will be issued December 26, according to a spokesman for the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget.
“Within the week, the governor’s office would like to craft an agreement with the legislature,” the spokesman said, “but if they can’t, the governor will start unallotting.”
“This does not bode well for efforts to close the $4.8 billion shortfall in the budget for the next biennium,” Greiling said, raising fears that Governor Pawlenty would try to force the Legislature to accept a slew of cuts to various state agencies and programs when he proposes his budget in January. “I think this goes along with the Governor’s desire to be seen as a hero in the fiscal conservative community.”
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.