Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lawmakers Put Down Your Fork On Taxes

In a sign that Minnesota's budget debate is heating up, Gov. Tim Pawlenty sharply rebuked lawmakers proposing higher taxes and spending by comparing them to weak-willed dieters who should "push away from the table." Addressing a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Pawlenty said the Legislature needs to exercise fiscal restraint after taking years to dig out of a historic budget hole. "You don't celebrate paying off your credit cards by going out on a spending spree," Pawlenty said. "You don't celebrate getting out of Weight Watchers by going over to the all-you-can-eat buffet. So our message to the Legislature is: Push away from the table. Put your fork down." The comments represent a different public tone for Pawlenty, who has worked with legislative leaders to rein in harsh rhetoric that contributed to past collapses at the Capitol.The day before, Pawlenty held closed-door meetings on the budget with top Democrats and Republicans. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said those discussions were cordial. She was taken aback by Wednesday's remarks, saying they sounded "a lot more like the governor of four years ago." She said the analogy was "unfortunate" and might not sit well with people battling weight problems. "He can make comments like that if he wants to as long as he continues to keep working -- and we do believe he will keep working -- together with us," Clark said. "It's less about snippy comments and more about let's do real work." Democrats, who control both legislative chambers by wide margins, so far have not advanced complete budget plans. To pay for property tax relief and education measures, caucus leaders have hinted they'll seek more money from corporate taxes and order revenue collectors to aggressively go after tax cheaters. But many other tax-raising plans are floating around, including a dime-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax and proposals to raise liquor, mortgage and top-rate income taxes. Pawlenty said his $34.4 billion budget boosts state spending by 9.3 percent over the next two years and should be enough. Democrats argue that his proposal is misleading because some of his initiatives aren't supported by ongoing dollars. The House and Senate could begin voting on their own budget recommendations next week, and a final agreement probably won't emerge until May. The new budget kicks in July 1.