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POLITICAL NOTEBOOK: Media doesn't laugh at Franken

ST. PAUL - National news reporters are at least a little frustrated with new Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.

First, he seldom displays the humor he used as a comedian. Second, he doesn't talk to them.

The Hill, a respected newspaper covering Congress, updated its readers about the Democrat who joined the Senate July 7, after a long election and post-election battle with Norm Coleman.

"As a senator, the former 'Saturday Night Live' star has delivered only one speech on the floor, introduced low-profile legislation and declined many media interview requests," reporter J. Taylor Rushing wrote before Franken spoke on the floor a second time the other day. "It is not unusual for a freshman senator to adopt a deferential approach in a chamber that is high on decorum and seniority. But the former entertainer has gone out of his way to deflect attention away from himself."

Franken's lack of jokes may generate the most frustration among the media. But Rushing uncovered one inside-the-beltway funny from a private Democratic meeting:

"'Al said we should do away with the seniority system,' said a Democratic senator who spoke on condition of anonymity, 'which was pretty funny, considering how low down he is in seniority.'

"Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's deadpan response, according to others in the room: 'Al, you're not funny any more. You've joined the Senate.'"

Right after The Hill story, Franken introduced his biggest bill, one that requires at least 90 percent of health insurance premium dollars go for health services, not profits. Also, he became one of 25 senators to ask Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to buy $100 million of pork from U.S. farmers to help ease a financial crisis that industry faces. Then, he and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., introduced legislation to expand the country's free school lunch program, which would give 54,000 more Minnesota students free lunches.

Tax change questions

Minnesotans and Wisconsinites have questions about how a decision to eliminate tax reciprocity between the two states will affect them.

"I've been stopped daily by Duluthians since the governor's decision ... with numerous questions on how cancelling the income tax reciprocity will affect their checkbooks and local businesses," Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said.

Since 1967, residents of either of the two states who worked in the other state needed to file income tax returns only the state where they live, and the states did the bookwork and settled up later. But Pawlenty complained that Wisconsin was 17 months late in paying money due Minnesota and while he was trying to balance the budget he demanded quicker payment or he would end tax reciprocity.

The states reached no agreement on speeding up payments.

That means thousands of people from the two states will need to fill out income tax returns for both states, and some will pay higher taxes. Reinert said about 8,000 Minnesotans will pay an average of $340 more in tax due to the change.

"Many regions of the state will never notice the elimination of tax reciprocity," Reinert said. "But for border communities and regional centers like Duluth whose economies depend on people and industries moving easily back and forth across the border, the impact of Gov. Pawlenty's action will be significant."

More information on reciprocity is available from the Minnesota Revenue Department at, (651) 296-3781 and (800) 652-9094. The Wisconsin information is at and (608) 266-2772.

Tax, cuts eyed

A dozen former Minnesota political leaders released a statement saying that tax increases and spending cuts both are needed to balance the state budget.

Ex-GOP Gov. Al Quie and former DFL House Speaker Martin Sabo (later a congressman) said budget work needs to continue in 2010, even though 2011 is the next time the Legislature is supposed to pass a budget.

Quie pointed out that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget cuts, known as unallotment, mostly come in the second year of the two-year state budget, so lawmakers next year can make changes.

Sabo, Quie and the 10 others who issued the statement emphasized that the state should follow a strict policy of only spending revenues it has available during the budget cycle, not borrowing money from future budgets.

Two in Times

A New York Times story prominently featured one Minnesota governor candidate and a bit less so another.

Reporter Monica Davey examined efforts by Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, to pass a state constitutional amendment that would "outlaw a crucial element of the health care plans under discussion in Washington: the requirement that nearly everyone buy insurance or pay a penalty."

"All I'm trying to do is protect the individual's right to make health care decisions," Emmer said.

While Emmer is one of nine announced Republican governor candidates, the story also brings in one of the 11 Democratic-Farmer-Laborite candidates, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis, who downplayed the Emmer effort.

"Most legislators are interested in improving the health of Minnesotans, and how to do more health care reform," Kelliher said. "No one thinks the answer is a states' right movement."

Pawlenty flip-flop?

A St. Petersburg, Fla., Times Web site calls Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty a flip-flopper on the environment.

"Back in 2007, Pawlenty was positioning himself as an environmental leader, pushing for aggressive reductions in greenhouse gases and a regional cap-and-trade plan," reports. "Fast-forward to 2009, and he's writing letters to Washington calling a Democratic plan to curb climate change, 'overly bureaucratic, misguided' and 'very burdensome on our economy.'"

Pawlenty says he is not running for president, and does not know what he will do when he leaves office early in 2011, but most political observers think he is mapping out a presidential run.

Franken staff home

U.S. Sen. Al Franken's Minnesota staff now has a place to call home.

Franken became senator July 7, but his staff just moved into a St. Paul office. Three more state offices are to open in coming months.

Even while in temporary space, Franken's staff was busy answering about 4,000 calls and beginning 550 casework files.

The new office is just south of downtown St. Paul, at 60 Plato Blvd., Suite 220, St. Paul 55107.

Marquart backs Kelliher

Rep. Paul Marquart is a supporter of House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher's bid to be governor.

The Dilworth Democrat sent a letter 23 rural newspaper editors saying: "Speaker Kelliher's unwavering commitment to rural Minnesota is no surprise to me. Her strong values and work ethic were nurtured by growing up on a dairy farm near Mankato in rural Minnesota."

Marquart, who is among the House's most outspoken rural advocates, also pointed out that Kelliher is the first House speaker to have been a county dairy princess and a state 4-H president.

Wetterling backs Gaertner

Child-safety advocate and former congressional candidate Patty Wetterling endorses Susan Gaertner for Minnesota governor.

Wetterling wrote a letter backing the Ramsey County attorney, who is seeking the DFL nomination in what now is a field of 11.