3Q: New Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller


City Pages

: You now officially have a state budget surplus, and although not counting inflation makes it seem much larger than the actual "real" money increase, there does seem to be some extra resources available as legislators put together the 2008-09 biennial budget during the next session. What do you see as the priority areas for spending?

Larry Pogemiller: Let me talk personally because I think it is premature to know where our committees and members of my caucus will go. I think there is general agreement on three areas and they are the bread and butter stuff. One is property tax relief, rebuilding the fiscal relationship between state and local governments, sort of a reconstruction of the Minnesota Miracle. Second, we badly need health care reform, for both businesses and individuals, but in a way that produces cost savings. That is doable. All the gubernatorial candidates were talking about cost savings even with universal coverage. Thirdly, we need strategic investments in education. I think people generally agree on a trade-off of increased accountability for [increased] investment. The governor has done that in a punitive way, but I think we can restructure it in a productive way because educators certainly want to be productive. And I think that kind of leads you to an investment in early childhood. Again that is a personal assessment but I think there is a growing recognition that that is the most strategic investment you can make, provide you with the biggest bang for the buck. Because if children aren't ready to learn, you can have a massive amount of inefficient spending.

City Pages: As chair of the Senate Tax Committee, you frequently pointed out how wealthier incomes were paying less and less of a percentage of their income in all the combined state and local taxes, even as those in the middle and some lower classes were paying proportionately more. Do you think the fact that there is now a budget surplus makes it harder to talk about making the tax system more progressive?

Larry Pogemiller: Well I am not tax chair any more. But my sense is that yes, you can separate the issue of tax fairness from increased revenue, and my sense is that [new tax chair] Tom Baak [DFL-Cook] will try and do that. You want a well-defined tax system that will help you gain revenue in an efficient way, and it doesn't do that now. That is the essence of the property tax debate we have been having. It is the wrong tax, the least preferable tax [to keep raising and relying upon].

City Pages: There has been a lot of talk about your personality and the Governor's personality and how there might be a lot of contentious jousting in the upcoming session--not that there hasn't been trouble between the Governor and legislative leaders in previous sessions. How do you expect things to go now that the DFL controls both the Minnesota House and Senate and there continues to be a Republican Governor?

Larry Pogemiller: With respect to the Governor, we are eager to work with his people and his ideas and I think it will go very well. But to the extent that he just offers a budget and then waits until the end of the session, it could be rockier. We have asked him to be better involved in the day-to-day workings and engage the process and I am optimistic that will happen. It is not good enough to just deal with press conferences, we need bills and things we can deal with directly to help move the legislative process forward. To the extent he does that, the House and the Senate and the Governor will all have differences of opinion and policy, but I think we will get a better product as we work out those differences. The legislature is set up to resolve differences and we have not been doing it as efficiently as we should. We have to do our [joint House and Senate] conference committee better, do it in public and have genuine engagement on the substance of our ideas. There has been way too much discussion of personalities and we have to focus on the job and on the idea. You don't have to be close friends with everybody, you just have to be respectful and work with the ideas. And the bad ideas will fail and the better ideas will survive.

I think the biggest challenge is to get back to honest budgeting and I think if we are able to accomplish that there will be a fairly straightforward resolution of honest issues. If we can't eliminate some of the funny business with the numbers then I think we will get a little stuck. We'll still get through, but it won't be the high-level discussion that Minnesotans deserve. For example, we can't be saying we can solve the [traffic] congestion problem in the metro area without additional revenue. Now people can act like that can happen, but the reality is it can't happen that way. There can be a decision to delay any decision [on transportation funding], but at least there needs to be an admission that you can't solve the problem without revenue.

A second example would be to say you want universal, affordable health care coverage and not implement significant cost savings--that's not real. To get affordable coverage you have to have serious cost savings in the system.

But I am very confident about this session. [New Senate Minority Leader] Dave Sengem [R-Rochester] was an excellent choice, and I think people are going to be very pleased by our relationship. People are going to say, 'Oh, grown-ups are in charge.' Because he is a very thoughtful and issue-oriented person who engages in high level, respectful conversations. We'll have our differences but I look forward to working with him.

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