The Circus Came to Town

So much debt, so little leadership

I couldn't resist trekking over to the state house last week to watch the trained seals perform their tricks. Oh, wait--my apologies to the memory of Sparky the Seal's late, great mentor, the Como Zoo's Norm Byng. There has been so much excitement around here lately that I'm getting my headlines all mixed up.

I was at the capitol on Tuesday when the house made its first attempt to muster an override of Gov. Jesse Ventura's budget veto. As the (ahem) drama unfolded, I was sitting at a table in the basement cafeteria with Glenn Dorfman, who was providing a running commentary. Dorfman, chief operating officer and lobbyist for the Minnesota Association of Realtors, is a longtime denizen of the Halls of Power, one of those people who know everyone--including many folks who are retired, or dead.

Oh yeah, and he's a curmudgeon.

Dorfman scoffed at the strategy of house Democrats who initially voted against the override in hopes of leveraging back $65 million in cuts to primary- and secondary-school education. "They look like a bunch of stupid idiots who were forced to change their minds," he told me later, after the second vote succeeded in nixing the governor's veto. "We're watching the demise of the DFL Party. It's a sad day when you can't have two vital parties in the state of Minnesota."

Hard to say exactly how much of that statement was meant as irony and how much was heartfelt. Suffice it to say that to Dorfman's eye, the entire budgeting exercise has been a charade spawned by election-year politicking.

"The simplest solution, it seems to me, is for the parties to act like they say they believe," says Dorfman. "The Republicans say they believe they should cut--less government. Well then, let them cut. The Democrats believe in raising taxes. Well then, they should raise taxes. And then they should meet in the middle: have a conference committee, divide up the difference--which is what the governor did in his bill. And then that's what they should pass.

"They're not doing that," he goes on. "They've cut virtually nothing, and they haven't raised taxes. So we're going to have a monster problem next year. And I think that's fundamentally irresponsible. But they believe that helps them get reelected."

I got a slightly different perspective on the budget battle from Wayne Cox. Another capitol fixture, Cox is executive director of Minnesota Citizens for Tax Justice, a group that's funded by the AFL-CIO. He's not nearly as cynical as Dorfman, but he's just as plugged in.

Though he agrees that there's plenty of blame to go around in the legislature, Cox has no intention of letting the governor off the hook. He points out that if you add up all the lost revenue that stems from the tax changes Ventura and the legislature made during the past three years, you arrive at a sum that would solve the current crisis.

"They went ahead and spent to the stars [last year] when there was no realistic belief that the money would ever show up to pay for it," Cox says. "And that's 60 percent of the deficit. So I'd certainly blame Ventura for that part of it, because it's his Department of Finance that comes up with those numbers and really ought to blow the whistle when you're getting into a situation of potential deficit spending. And they didn't. But beyond that, the tax cuts were basically agreed to by both [legislative] bodies and him, so they all share the blame."

Cox singles out Senate Majority Leader (and Democratic candidate for governor) Roger Moe for ultimately getting the message and arguing against the tax plan during the special session last year. At the same time, he can't help but laugh at the revisionist view now being espoused by Ventura: "Now they're vehemently arguing, 'It's Osama bin Laden, stupid.'"

Cox's recipe for repairing the broken budget should come as no surprise: Go back to the way things were three years ago. Glenn Dorfman, meanwhile, believes the legislature should expand the sales tax to clothing--an idea that's been around for decades and has been consistently backed by the public in opinion polls. Of course, it's impossible to predict what the next few months might bring, much less whether tax increases will be on the table. But whatever the legislature and the governor do, they're sure to put on a show to rival Norm Byng and Sparky on their best day.

In fact, they ought to consider charging admission--it'd be a sure-fire revenue generator.

 

Headfirst appears every other week. E-mail the author at tfinkel@citypages.com.

 
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