By Tom Larson
As chair of the Minnesota Senate Tax Committee, gubernatorial candidate Tom Bakk has plenty of ideas on how he'd like to see lawmakers fix the state's budget shortfall, funding formulas and a stagnant jobs market.
But like the carpenter he is, Bakk believes a major repair job is needed first: Mending the fractured relationship that currently exists between the governor's office and the state Legislature.
"We have to set a better tone at the Capitol,"said Bakk during a campaign stop in Morris on Tuesday. "We need a better relationship."
Since Bakk, a DFLer from Cook, announced his intention to run for governor last year, he's made job creation the hallmark of his campaign. He believes putting people back on the job and then keeping them there is the key to fixing a budget shortfall that stands at $1.2 billion for this biennium and an estimated $5.4 billion for the next two-year budget cycle.
But nothing is going to be successful until lawmakers and the governor get along better and work better - and Bakk, naturally, places most of the blame on the man he hopes to succeed, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"I decided to run for governor because I'm concerned about the direction we're heading," Bakk said, calling Pawlenty a tough and partisan negotiator. "(Pawlenty) is a 'do it my way or I'll do it' kind of guy. As a negotiator, he's not going to let the other side get anything. That creates hard feelings. That's what's happened at the Capitol and it hasn't served people well."
The animosity reached a peak at the end of last year's session, when lawmakers had their budget bill vetoed, then could just stand by as Pawlenty used the power of unilaterally unalloting funds to balance the budget.
The situation was further strained after Pawlenty snubbed Democrats' invitation to attend a summit of past and present state leaders last summer to discuss economic issues, and, most recently, when the DFL leaders were cool to Pawlenty's request for a special session to codify the governor's school funding shifts.
Breaking the political loggerheads, jobs, the budget and education are Bakk's top priorities as his drive for his party's nomination takes shape.
Bakk stresses his background as a union carpenter - one who knows the struggles many people are feeling in a weakened economy -- as valuable experience.
"When you talk about people not having a job, it's personal to me because I know what it's like not to have one," Bakk said.
A reduction in jobs and hours worked have a direct impact on the economic problems, he said, noting that a discussion with State Economist Tom Stinson revealed that reduced income tax collections were almost equal to the $1.2 billion deficit.
"Until we get the economy turned around and get people back to work, the revenue situation in the state just isn't going to improve," he said.
Bakk said he isn't a politician who believes Minnesota can tax itself back to prosperity - he supports a combination of revenue increases and cuts - but he said he strongly believes that K-12 and higher education need more funding from the state. Local levies can't carry districts, and tight budgets make it difficult to get levies approved in areas with low tax capacities. That causes huge inequities in opportunities, he said.
Education is a great business equalizer for Minnesota, which contends with competitive disadvantages such as high taxes, transportation and weather issues. Despite those disadvantages, Minnesota's education system has fueled the creation of 19 Fortune 500 Minnesota companies, more than any other state, Bakk said.
"We have to know what our strengths are and invest in them," he said. "We can't lose one of the best competitive advantages we have."
Bakk would like to see those and other issues addressed - if not solved - before a new governor succeeds Pawlenty, who is not seeking a third term this November.
"It would be irresponsible for a governor to spend eight years here and then leave, and leave behind a $5.4 billion deficit. That's a legacy. At least give the next governor a clean sheet of paper."