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Column: Pawlenty wins smackdown

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Minnesota's budget shortfall is the result of the national and international "economic collapse" affecting nearly all states' budgets. (Scott Wente/Minn. State Capitol Bureau)

ST. PAUL -- Watching the 2010 session from the cheap seats was more like watching the legislative version of the World Wrestle Entertainment "Smackdown" event. Of course, there's one major difference: Jesse Ventura, Minnesota's professional-wrestler-turned-governor, has moved on.

Or so we thought.

Everything from the headlock to the body-slam was in vogue during the annual gathering under the capitol dome this year. The DFL-controlled legislature seemed intent to smackdown every proposal put forward by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the outset.

But Pawlenty has learned a few moves of his own.

This year's legislative grudge match actually started at the end of the 2009 session when Pawlenty balanced the state budget by making $2.7 billion in budget cuts without consulting DFL leadership or calling a special legislative session. These were the so-called "unallotments."

Even though the animosity started with the $2.7 billion budget reduction, it quickly expanded with a Pawlenty veto of $380 million in funding for the General Assistance Medical Care program.

By the time the legislative session started in February the grudge match had become more heated, in part because House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, had entered the 2010 race for governor.

Things got started right out of the gate with the DFL desire to slam through a $1 billion building-construction bill paid for with state bonds. Gov. Pawlenty had clearly stated his objections to any bill spending more than $750 million.

Even with the threat of a veto, the DFL forged ahead and passed a $1.1 billion package of construction projects. Upon receiving the bill, the governor line-item vetoed $319 million from the bill: Score one smackdown for Pawlenty.

The fight that had been simmering for months over paying for the General Assistance Medical Care program began to boil next. Again, DFL legislators had been attacking the governor for eight months for his veto of this program.

In their defense, DFL leaders worked long and hard to craft legislation to address the health care needs for this very low-income population. Even though their bill had broad bipartisan support, Gov. Pawlenty quickly rejected it with another veto.

This sent the Democrats scrambling to find an alternative solution before funding was entirely eliminated on April 1. In quick fashion, DFL legislators worked out a compromise with the governor and passed another General Assistance Medical Care bill, which the governor did sign.

Pawlenty had again smacked down the DFL's first proposal in order to accomplish what he wanted.

In the biggest surprise of the 2010 session, the Minnesota Supreme Court in early May ruled that Gov. Pawlenty had overreached his executive authority when he unilaterally unalloted that $2.7 billion from the budget in June 2009.

Having filed a friend of the court brief against the governor's actions, the DFL certainly looked like it could potentially get a smackdown of their own. But their hopes for victory in the grudge match were short lived.

Faced with the prospects of having to resolve a $3 billion budget hole, and with only two weeks left before the mandated adjournment of the Legislature on May 17, there were few options available to the DFL legislative majorities to close the budget gap.

So, as usual, the Democrats went to their old reliable maneuver -- the "tax the rich" move.

But their patented move failed, just as it had at the end of the 2009 session. With a package of budget cuts and a $450 million income tax increase, the DFL leadership was barely able to muster enough votes to pass their last ditch attempt to balance the budget. Even before the bill was passed, the governor pledged to veto their proposed tax increase.

Gov. Pawlenty once again smacked down their proposal with a quick veto.

Now with only nine days left before adjournment, Democrats were bewildered. Their hopes of a $400 million state bailout arriving from federal health care dollars disappeared, along with their efforts to raise taxes. There was little left for the DFL majorities to do but to rubber stamp the budget unallotments they had so strenuously objected to for the last 10 months.

Gov. Pawlenty was able to emerge victorious from a bruising and bitter legislative contest. While Democrats held their heads high for providing a balanced budget, most of their budget solutions were thwarted by the governor in the end.

The winner of the 2010 legislative smackdown event was Gov. Pawlenty.

Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.