Last Friday, the State Government Finance conference committee met in the hopes of putting a bill on Gov. Dayton’s desk. What happened instead was a tiresome charade by Gov. Dayton’s commissioners.

Follow this link if you’d like to watch the video. Otherwise, here are my transcripts of the key portions of the conference committee hearings. (Keep in mind that a roomful of military veterans were seated right behind Gov. Dayton’s commissioners the entire time.) Here’s the first combative exchange:

SEN. PARRY: Commssioner, you have to realize that we have given discretion to MMB and, I guess, what concerns me is that the direction that the Senate has set of holding harmless because of the nature of the veterans that anyone would go against our intent…I guess that’s what bothers me here is that knowing what the Senate’s stance is that the commissioner of MMB would target you for more cuts and your department.
(INAUDIBLE)
COMMISSIONER SHOWALTER: The figures that you see and the impacts that you see are on average. So on point, if the commissioner of Management and Budget were to use as his or her discretion to put a lower cut on Veterans Affairs at some point in time, that means that somebody is unwittingly testifying that the effects of this provision are not as severe as they are about to be.
SEN. PARRY: So, Commissioner, what you are saying is that this administration and the Governor want us to leave Veterans on the table for future cuts? Is that what you’re telling us?
COMMISSIONER SHOWALTER: Senator, what I am telling you is that the language has substantial impact on all elements of state government and, as it’s currently construed, would be nearly impossible to implement without having dramatic impacts on many, many activities.
SEN. PARRY: I’m not sure I got the answer I was looking for Commissioner. Are you saying that this administration and the Governor want us to leave Veterans on the table for future cuts?
COMMISSIONER SHOWALTER: Mr. Chairman, I am not here to negotiate over the language. I’m just here to help provide information on the impact on the language from the House and Senate proposals.
SEN. VANDEVEER: Sen. Parry, I think what I’m hearing the Commissioner saying is that, due to the sensitive political nature of the veterans, that they are willing to throw them under the bus in order to make a broader point that they’re being totally cut too extremely so, regardless of which direction this committee or this legislature should go, it sounds to me like their intent is to play political games and they’re willing to do that regardless of what the truth is.

Commissioner Showalter’s evasive answers clearly put the committee in a fowl mood. Rather than reply to their questions with straightforward answers, Commissioner Showalter was more interested in giving the Dayton administration’s worst case scenarios the most authentic appearance possible.

Shortly thereafter, Chairman Lanning expressed his disgust with Commissioner Shellito, the commissioner of Veterans Affairs:

REP. LANNING: Commissioner General, you know that the Veterans budget is the only budget that got an increase and it seems to me that that sends a pretty clear signal of what our intent is that both the House and the Senate want to protect veterans and military affairs. There should be no mistake about that because it’s very clear because everybody else got cuts. If you take a look at the intent further on the House side, we’re doing everything possible we can to protect nursing homes. If you think that the House is intent on having veterans facilities suffer consequences here that would be problematic, then you’re misunderstanding the intent.

That’s why I’m disappointed that, for whatever reason, you have apparently been given impressions that are not accurate and have led to very serious misunderstanding that we need to address. If there are suggestions that we could do to get more comfort here in stating our intent, then let’s talk about that.

But let’s not go scaring people into thinking that something is going to happen when that’s not likely to happen.
SHELLITO: Rep. Lanning, I appreciate that and I understand your frustration but I would then give you my viewpoint. Yes, you’ve given us a 3% increase in the omnibus bill, both sides. Thank you. That I understand. But my mission is to protect the veterans in this room so I only go with the language that I have, which is the omnibus bill as written.

And as I look at it, I see the vagueness of the 15%. I see the vagueness of the 10% and doing my due diligence requires me to…I cannot get into your head and get what you’re really thinking. I couldn’t get into the committee’s head to know what they’re thinking so I had to provide the…and you said it quite eloquently, the worst, worst, worst case scenario. And again, I apologize for that. I don’t want to do that. I value how you’ve treated the veterans in the past.
REP. LANNING: General-Commissioner, we’ve known each other since high school.
SHELLITO: Yes sir.
REP. LANNING: A simple phone call maybe could’ve cleared up some of the simple misunderstanding if you were lacking and let this be a lesson to us all. Before we go spouting off in a public sort of way, then maybe we go to the source or have some conversation about it.

The fact that Commissioner Shellito and Chairman Lanning knew each other in high school is telling in that, despite the fact that Commissioner Shellito had questions, he didn’t bother calling his old friend who is the vice-chair of this conference committee. Instead, Commissioner Shellito misrepresented the GOP’s bill as hurting veterans.

Again, remember that the two rows behind Commissioners Shellito and Showalter were filled with retired military vets dressed in military garb while Shellito was making these accusations that veterans were getting cut.

Shortly thereafter, things boiled over:

CHAIRMAN PARRY: General, I do admire your position. I do know that you are a soldier. And I know that when soldiers are given orders, they carry them out to the fullest and I admire you for doing that. My concern is, for all in here who are veterans, it’s time that this administration quits using veterans as a political pawn. I don’t think I have to say anymore. Stop it.

Chairman Parry isn’t the type that gets hot under the collar often. In that context, that statement was downright vesuvial. It was also justified. That wasn’t the end of the fireworks, though. Here’s Rep. Downey’s expressed outrage:

REP. DOWNEY: I’m looking at the House bill and maybe there’s some things in the Senate bill, and I know that the Commissioner has said that they’ve done some extrapolations and assumptions that revenues that they couldn’t realize so I appreciate them working off a different number but I’m looking at the House bill and we are expecting that the executive branch agencies would generate $94,875,000 in additional reductions that aren’t already factored into our other omnibus finance bills and yet you’re talking about a $90,000,000 reduction and yet we’ve just heard that from the Department of Veterans Affairs that $10,000,000 in reductions so we’re already exceeding the target so we’re talking about two of our relatively smallest agencies so we haven’t talked with Health and Human Services or the big monsters.

So, members, I just want to pull us back to the fact that these commissioners are relying on information that appears to be largely politically motivated, to somehow extrapolate from these bills to proscribe none of the things that are being communicated here. Nowhere in this bill is there a $90,000,000 reduction so if you’re getting your information from MMB or admin or wherever it comes from or the executive branch, I’m not sure how valuable this hearing is, Mr. Chair, if every single number is being presented and all of the draconian outcomes that are being represented aren’t even close to the provisions in this bill.

And if we’re going to continue with the hearing, I would like the testifiers to say that, upon the governor’s instruction, and direction from the office of management and budget, that we are going to make these cuts, that these are the Governor’s prerogatives or his priorities and not ours because they are nowhere’s in our bill. And we can continue to sit here and have the discussion with Mr. Showalter about how they were trying to come up with calculations and derrivations from our bill to support these numbers but members, I’m starting to tire of the discussions and having to constantly come back to the fact that it’s not our bill that’s driving these numbers, that it’s the Governor’s priorities.

All of these numbers represent the Governor’s priorities, not our bills.

Shortly thereafter, Commissioner Showalter made this admission:

CHAIRMAN PARRY: Commissioner Showalter, was there written instructions given to each commissioner to how to proceed for today’s hearing?
COMMISSIONER SHOWALTER: Mr. Chair, I alerted commissioners, I believe yesterday, of the impact of the provisions that are in front of you (GARBLED FEED)

We’ve been trying to understand the interactions and the magnitude of that impact. We have been in communication with the fiscal staff over the last day to get their understanding and impact of the programmatic impact that we’re trying to present to you today.

In general, contrary to what Rep. Downey, and I do respect his work, but the instructions are pretty clear in the bill as to the level of reductions within this provision and the other provisions. There are a few cost-savings items, but in general, most of the savings that we’re talking about are related to items reducing the staffing complement, reducing the available resources to commissioners to execute their responsibilities so that is the spreadsheet that I talked about before to give you the overall context and to give you an idea.
CHAIRMAN PARRY: So you did give written instructions so that they fully understood how they were to move forward with their testimony today?
SHOWALTER: Mr. Chairman, I haven’t instructed anyone on testimony. What I have asked and informed them on is these provisions because not everyone is watching the State Government Committee or they’re assuming that we take the lead in looking at these elements and helping them understand the impact and what issues they need to be aware of.
PARRY: So were your instructions orally delivered, your message, or in form of the information that they’re working off from. I guess what I’m asking for, Commissioner Showalter, I would like to, if there was a written memo given to each commissioner on how to look at their budget, I would be interested, and I’m sure this committee would be interested to see that memo.

Because if every commissioner that’s coming here with worst case scenarios, that is a far cry from what is inside the House and the Senate versions of this bill as I have listened. And so I guess maybe, for us to understand what the commissioners are working off of, I would think that it would be prudent to give us…let us look at the instructions that you have given commissioners.

Rep. Downey wasn’t as polite as Chairman Parry:

REP. DOWNEY: Thank you, Mr. Chair, and I appreciate the graciousness of the chairs because, frankly, I’m not feeling quite as gracious. I think it would be extremely important for us to see whatever worksheets they’ve been working off of, Veterans and Corrections and understand the assumptions and interpretations of our bills from MMB.

Frankly, I just think it needs to be plainly said, and I’ve said it before and I’ll probably stop, I’m getting tired of having the same conversation but it seems pretty obvious that the Governor is far less interested in having substantive, collaborative discussions about how we understand these bills and how we translate them into a final budget solution that everybody can agree with and is far more interested in hiding behind the smokescreen of problematic fiscal notes and all kinds of assumptions and interpretations and far more interested in getting out politically and hammering on the legislature rhetorically and we don’t have very far to go.

It’s past the time that we get off the political rhetoric side of it and get onto the true hard work of negotiations and collaboration. I find this hearing to be less about our bill and far more about political messaging and I don’t know why we’d continue.

Commissioner Showalter said about half way through the hearing that he wasn’t there to negotiate with the committee, that he was just there to talk about the impact the bill would have.

With so many points of contention with the people that wrote the bill and with military veterans sitting right behind the commissioners, it’s difficult to think that this was anything other than the Dayton administration’s attempt at a cheap PR stunt.

Rep. Downey said what was on everyone’s mind: that Gov. Dayton put a higher priority on the PR stunt and fuzzy math than he put on balancing the budget on time. Shame on him for that. It’s time that he put Minnesota first instead of putting politics first.

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5 Responses to “Conference Committee Fireworks”

  • J. Ewing says:

    I’ve told you before to give the DFL a break: political talking points, rhetoric and games is all they have to work with. Never two good ideas to rub together.

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