By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Every year they arrive from all corners of the state, from the inner cities and the prairie farms, the suburban cul-de-sacs and the dying small towns. Starched and wing-tipped, they enter the great legislative halls more than 200 strong, presenting the very picture of decorum as they wheedle and pummel one another out of more than a billion dollars of your money--legally, of course. Because they are the ones who make the laws.
The 1998 legislative session has been an especially momentous and contentious affair. It began when an estimated $1.9 billion surplus landed in lawmakers' laps just as they were compiling their wish lists for the biennial Capital Improvements bill. Otherwise known as the "bonding" bill, Capital Improvements is where big-ticket items like new schools, municipal buildings, parks, and economic-development projects are paid for--and where slabs of legislative pork are carved up and handed out. "You'd think having more money would make it easier," says wily Senate Tax Committee chair Doug Johnson (DFL-Tower). "But it is just the opposite. It is like a feeding frenzy."
And there's nothing like an election year to whet a politician's appetite. This November Minnesota voters will decide the fate of all 134 House members, and, more significantly, choose a new governor. With incumbent Arne Carlson having decided against another run, campaigns for the state's most powerful political office are well under way in both parties, adding yet more levels of intrigue and intensity to the legislative agenda.
The political pushing and shoving has been particularly bruising in the skirmish over $65 million in potential state funding for the $130 million RiverCentre arena in St. Paul, future home of the Minnesota Wild, the expansion franchise slated to return the National Hockey League to the Twin Cities two years from now. Carlson included St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman's RiverCentre funding proposal among his bonding-bill requests to the Legislature, and the House okayed the entire $65 million in its version. But the Senate went out of its way to do nothing for RiverCentre, resulting in a faceoff in the joint capital improvements/bonding conference committee, where five members from each legislative body are hashing things out at this very moment.
Although Carlson has threatened to veto any bonding bill that does not include RiverCentre, state funding is far from a sure thing. The hefty price tag alone is enough to pique the interest of the Capitol's major players. Add to that the sports-team mystique and last year's contretemps over funding for a Twins stadium and you've got the makings of a real brouhaha, with political lives at stake (not to mention the financial future of Minnesota's second-largest city). This past week's conflict-of-interest revelations involving former St. Paul City Council President Dave Thune and the contractor tapped to build the arena only mean the scuffle is destined to occupy local hearts, minds, and headlines for some time to come.
Needless to say, we at City Pages love a good brawl, especially when the combatants are out of shape and wear ties. And with Carlson throwing his weight around while Coleman, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, and a host of other politicos engage in their own fancy footwork, this scrap over hockey is starting to look like a gloves-on-the-ice, jerseys-over-the head melee the likes of which haven't been seen around these parts since 1993, when dastardly Norm Green put on his black hat and rode our beloved North Stars down to Dallas. In the waning moments of the funding fray, as much for our own amusement as for our
readers' edification, we couldn't resist offering the following chronicle of all the slap shots and cheap shots that have made it so darn entertaining to watch these guys spend our money.
NOTE: In honor of the venerable game of hockey, which places nearly as high a premium on good sportsmanship as politics does, we've come up with some suitable measures to chart the performance of the major players:
Stick-Handling Ability: Can he score in tough situations?
The Penalty Box: If he were to be whistled down for something, what would be the most likely infraction?
Power Play: Does he put the team at a one- or two-man advantage, or is having this guy on your side more like playing shorthanded?
ST. PAUL MAYOR NORM COLEMAN
During the closing days of the '97 session, Hizzoner was a ubiquitous presence in the halls of the Capitol, whizzing from committee to committee and cutting loose with a barrage of belated plans for luring pro hockey to his fair city. What only weeks earlier had been a proposed $51 million renovation of the existing St. Paul Civic Center to convince the NHL's Hartford Whalers to relocate became a $130 million new facility for an expansion franchise. And the state's share of the funding would have to be hammered out before the NHL's June meeting, just around the corner. A majority of legislators squinted hard at this freewheeling interloper who had recently switched political parties from DFL to Republican and was in the midst of a re-election campaign--and sent him crashing into the proverbial boards. There would be no hockey money for St. Paul, and that was that.