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GOP leaders: 2008 session a 'mixed bag'

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The 2008 Legislature adjourned on time, which alone, given recent history, bestows a good grade on lawmakers' effort.

As for the rest of the session, a member of the state's Senate Republican Caucus called it a "mixed bag" of accomplishments and missed opportunities.

Sen. Betsy Wergin, of Princeton, and Sen. Joe Gimse, of Willmar, stopped in Morris earlier this week as part of a post-session tour of central, western and northwestern Minnesota.

"There were some good things," Wergin said, mentioning veterans benefits, health care reforms and increased school funding. "But you couple that with what didn't happen."

Wergin expressed disappointment that an economic stimulus package couldn't be worked out, that pension deficits remain, and the state could be grappling with a budget shortfall ranging between $1 billion and $3 billion when lawmakers convene in 2009.

"This is not the time to relax," Wergin said. "It's time to start working."

Lawmakers dealt with a record number of bill introductions this session, and that didn't set well with Gimse. Not only does state staff have to deal with the flurry of paperwork, many of the bills are very similar. As such, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty issued a record number of vetoes and lawmakers probably didn't spend as much time as they should have on budget issues.

"All through the process, the governor was saying what he will and what he won't accept," Gimse said. "But Democrats didn't seem to want to work with that. I don't think the DFL should take an extreme amount of pride sending bills that resulted in a record number of vetoes. I don't understand the message they were trying to send."

Neglecting the budget means that, while the state erased a $935 million deficit, more extensive repairs weren't undertaken. The state will have virtually no wiggle room in its reserves -- $500 million of the $650 million in reserves was used for the deficit -- and hard cuts will be needed next year facing projected a shortfall that could approach $3 billion, Gimse said.

"There will be no flexibility," he said, and Wergin agreed.

"We didn't spend enough time on the budget when we should have been taking a long, cautious approach," Wergin said. "People say that it's only $200,000 here or $50,000 there and that it doesn't really add up. I say baloney. The bucket gets filled one drop at a time. We're going to have to turn over every stone in 2009."

In what may be an unprecedented move, the Senate Republican Caucus could issue its own budget proposals before the next session, Wergin said.

The Department of Finance issues its revenues and expeditures forecast in November, and the governor typically issues a budget proposal early in the session. Wergin said she wasn't sure a caucus had ever issued its own proposals.

Both said the goal will be easing the pinch on taxpayers.

"We don't look at taxpayers as an endless source of money," Gimse said. "We all have to live within our means. Businesses have to do it, families have to do it. Why not government?"

"Usually," Wergin said, when you're in the minority you take the role of taxpayer defense. This time, we're going to go on the taxpayer offense."

District 11 Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and District 11A Rep. Torrey Westrom didn't attend the Morris meeting. But Gimse sang the praises of Ingebrigtsen's role in getting the arts and outdoor constitutional amendment question on the ballot in November.

"That was a 10-year battle that finally got finished," Gimse said.

Ingebrigtsen also played a key role in getting dedicated funding a match, which garner's the state an even more positive partnership with groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, Gimse said.

"If you partner with them, you double your bang for the buck," he said. "Sen. Ingebrigtsen did a lot of work on that, and we're pretty proud of that as an accomplishment."