The DFL Grows A Spine

One of the more rewarding aspects of the recent budget deal ending Minnesota's state government shutdown was the sorely needed renewal of the notion that the DFL would fight for the little guy against the fat cats in society.

Two years ago, Senate Majority Leader John Hottinger caved in to Gov. Pawlenty on a whole range of issues, but most specifically health care, causing tens of thousands of Minnesotans to be dumped from state-supported health insurance. Hottinger's cut-and-run approach looked especially shameful when the Senate's Health and Human Services Chair Linda Berglin refused to accede to Pawlenty, and actually wrung out a deal that saved a few thousand folks from losing their insurance. The question that lingered in the wake of that carnage was: What would have happened if Hottinger had hung tough? This year we got an inkling.

At the beginning of the negotiations on this biennial budget, Pawlenty thought he could again soak up the structural deficits his short-sighted economic stewardship had created by raiding the state's health care access fund and tossing tens of thousands more working Minnesotans off the health care rolls. But with Sen. Dean Johnson--a current National Guard chaplain and former longterm Republican legislator--having replaced Hottinger as Senate Majority Leader, the DFL refused to sell out the 47,000 people in danger of being thrown off the MinnesotaCare health insurance program.

Johnson could have easily gone along for the ride, declaring the increased funding for education that both parties wanted as a victory for the DFL, and amicably recessing. (Contrary to popular consensus in the media that education funding bump is hardly a windfall due to its ignorance of inflation, but more on that at another time.) Instead, Johnson and his party risked the public's scorn over gridlock and held out for health care for the working class people who are their once and future base.

On the first day of the shutdown, Johnson made no bones about the fact that health care was a DFL priority. Nor was he afraid to use the Senate's passage of an income tax increase on the state's wealthiest citizens as a counter-chip to Pawlenty's desire to ingratiate himself with the no-taxes crowd by using revenues from a state-sponsored racino to underwrite education and health care. Because the DFL found its spine, the MinnesotaCare health insurance plan not only will retain its current enrollment, but will relax some of the benefit restrictions imposed upon it two years ago.

The budget deal also put the Twins stadium deal into purgatory, and left the state's transportation system limping along, albeit with some crucial patchwork money for mass transit. Did anyone believe Twins President Jerry Bell when he said the team would give up its stadium pursuits if the current deal with Hennepin County didn't go through? Yeah, me neither.

The roads are another story. Bipartisan majorities passed a laudable transportation bill in both the House and the Senate. Pawlenty vetoed it--it had a gas tax that he somehow couldn't finesse into labeling a fee--and has instead proposed that we let voters decide if they want to take literally billions out of the general fund to bankroll transportation projects. But now that the bloom is off the rose with respect to the Gov's prospects for national office and his ability to retain the blind loyalty of the no-tax crew, it will be interesting to see if he holds to that ruinous transportation strategy.

At the very least, it seems that he will be facing an opposition party that has rediscovered its backbone and maybe even its soul.


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