The Deal Goes Down

Not rolling over for Xcel: Sen. Sandy Pappas (left) and friend to Northwest Airlines Rep. Bob Gunther (right)
Courtesy of the Minnesota State Senate and House of Representatives

Shared sacrifice and greater personal responsibility: Wasn't that the prescription Governor Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota legislators invoked as a way to solve the state's $4.2 billion deficit without raising taxes? The last-minute maneuvering during the chaotic final days of the current legislative session has revealed, as many of us suspected, that their rhetoric was nothing more than cynical code for screwing the vulnerable and shielding their corporate patrons.

Begin with the chicanery over the fate of Xcel's nuclear power plant at Prairie Island. To convince the state to allow the storage of nuclear waste in dry casks at Prairie Island back in 1994, the corporation's executives and lobbyists swore up and down that the utility would never come back to the capitol to ask for more casks. They lied. In a bow to labor, which would lose jobs if the plant were closed, Senator Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul) and environmental groups conceded the additional casks Xcel was asking for, but stipulated that even further increases would have to be approved by the full legislature instead of the Public Utilities Commission, and that Xcel would have to strengthen its commitment to developing renewable energy resources.

That was the gist of the Senate bill, which ostensibly was to be reconciled in conference committee with the more onerous bill passed by the Republican-dominated House. But a conference committee, which would have included Anderson, was never convened. Instead, Xcel lobbyists got together with a smaller group of legislators, including Senator Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), who had worked hard to water down Anderson's demands by authoring a competing Senate bill. Murphy also happens to be an employee of Xcel, a seemingly glaring conflict of interest.

The bill hammered out by Xcel, Murphy, and other utility-friendly legislators behind closed doors removed the direct legislative oversight and redefined "renewable" energy sources to include the burning of tires and garbage and the gasification of coal. When they tried to ram it through the Senate in the final hours of the regular session last Monday night (the House had already passed it), it took a filibuster by Anderson and Senator Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) to prevent it from becoming law. As of last Friday, the negotiations during the special session had removed the provision for burning tires, but coal gasification, burning garbage, and less legislative oversight were still in play.

Another perversion of the principle of "shared sacrifice" occurred during the conference-committee deliberations over the omnibus bill for natural resources, agriculture, and economic development. Amid the end-of-session chaos, Representative Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont) decided to slip a few lines into the voluminous bill that exempted Northwest Airlines from paying into the state's petroleum cleanup fund. This provision, which was never considered in debate by either the House or the Senate, saves Northwest $4 million over the next two years and deprives the fund of the same amount. Gunther says he did it because Northwest is going through hard economic times and he didn't want to see any mechanics laid off by the company. He also points out that Northwest has paid millions into the fund since 1992, yet has only required $190,000 of fund monies for the maintenance and cleanup of their fuel tanks. "They deserve a break," he argues.

But there are obviously companies that are not paying their fair share. Last year, the cleanup fund revenues dipped so low--even with Northwest's $2 million annual contribution--that a state gasoline tax went into effect, as required by law, to shore it up. Gunther concedes that he didn't make any provisions to reimburse the fund for Northwest's exemption, meaning that the lost millions will likely have to be replenished by taxpaying citizens at the gas pump--yet another hidden tax from the Republicans.

Gunther acknowledges that in the grand scheme of things, the $4 million saved isn't going to make much of a difference in Northwest's future viability. "It's just a gesture of support," he says. But for other entities fighting for precious dollars at the capitol, giving or taking four million bucks has real ramifications. For example, in the same omnibus bill where Gunther exempted Northwest, $2 million in one-time allocations to provide transitional housing for the homeless was cut, resulting in the loss of 157 beds. And in another bill, approximately $3.8 million in funding was taken away from battered women's shelters, which is expected to result in staff cuts and the closing of some rural shelters.

"This is the largest single change in our ability to serve since we started in 1974. We're rolling back 30 years," says Beverley Dusso, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Tubman Family Alliance. "I thought Governor Pawlenty said that public safety was his top priority. You want to know the real irony? The very same legislators who have cut resources to these violence-free havens are now forcing us [due to the recently passed conceal-and-carry gun law] to post signs outside telling people we don't want them to bring handguns into these shelters."

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