Monday, May 22, 2006

The Blame Game: DECC expansion fails

It's been discussed. At length.

And now it's apparently over, at least for now.

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up its 2006 session by failing to approve any kind of funding to expand the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. This was despite the voter referendum that passed with a 61 percent majority in late February, and despite pledges of support from Governor Tim Pawlenty and House Speaker Steve Sviggum.

Well, something like this doesn't happen without someone being blamed. So it's time to play The DECC Expansion Blame Game!

If you aren't familiar with the format for the Blame Game, it's pretty simple. We'll list candidates for blame, discuss why they deserve blame, and assess a fixed percentage of the blame that should be placed on that candidate.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson
Going back to my time living in Superior, Wisconsin, where Herb was the mayor for eight years, I have always said that I'm not the biggest fan of Bergson. That said, I think he did well here. He lobbied hard, spending the better part of the last five days in the Cities trying to work up support for this project, and trying to sell legislators on the importance of this project to our area.

Herb's only crime, apparently, was that he didn't have the clout that a more experienced mayor might have had in St. Paul (he's only in his first term of office in Duluth). That said, I believe he worked very hard to win support for the DECC, and it's difficult to assess a lot of blame on him for something that's largely out of his control. Blame: 10 percent.

Local representatives
Much has been made of the work done by our local representatives to try to sell this proposal to others. And, for the most part, folks believe that they didn't do enough to make it happen. Clearly, the undesirable result makes it seems like our local representatives let us down.

I don't know a lot of specifics, but I do feel pretty confident about a few things. I believe that Senator Yvonne Prettner-Solon worked extremely hard to make this happen, and I think that we got some help from Representative Tom Huntley.

However, for the most part, I think the local representation failed us. I never sensed any enthusiasm toward this project from them. As talked about here, Representative Mike Jaros made comments that left me wondering if he had ever actually been to the DECC, as he wanted the 700-car parking ramp removed from the proposed project to save money.

Some have talked about the lack of clout among our current crop of politicians, because the DFL is out of power both in the House and in the governor's mansion, and longtime stalwarts like Sam Solon and Doug Johnson are no longer in the Senate (Solon died a few years ago, and Johnson retired). I agree with this to an extent, and it falls on the voters to remove any ineffective leaders from office in November. I think there are going to be some interesting races in this part of the state. Blame: 20 percent.

The DFL Party of Minnesota
The DFL controls the Senate. The Senate never backed this project, despite lobbying by its own party members from this area, as well as the mayor of Minnesota's fourth-largest city, who is also a Democrat. Never before could there be more justifiable anger at this party in our area, an area that the DFL has owned for years.

One of the main areas of failure for the DECC was within the DFL. With the good relationship this party has had in our area in recent years, there's no excuse for the DFL ignoring a proposal that was such a high priority for our area.

And it's that relationship that makes me feel so angry towards the DFL today. Our representatives and the mayor of Duluh shouldn't have had to spend countless hours lobbying their own party on this project, and since the Republican leadership allegedly supported the project, it's ridiculous to think that the DFL did so little to keep this project from sinking. In the end, the political agenda of the DFL, which is centered at this point on making Pawlenty look like an idiot, is a big part of why the DECC expansion wasn't funded. Blame: 35 percent

Governor Tim Pawlenty
Apparently, the words "full support" don't mean as much as they used to. I thank the Governor for his initial support of this project. It made it a lot easier, I believe, to sell this idea to business leaders and citizens of the area. I recognized at the time that it was probably little more than election-year politicking by the governor, but it was still appreciated.

That said, it isn't completely unexpected that this project went in the tank. State leadership has been notorious for forgetting the northeastern part of Minnesota, to the point where local talk show host Lew Latto refers to Duluth as being "150 miles north of the United States". I'm left to wonder if Pawlenty expects to encounter border crossings when he drives through Anoka County.

Pawlenty did what politicians do. He made an empty promise. He tried to use the DECC project as a political pawn to get the spending pare-downs he wanted from the DFL. When that didn't work, he tried to use the DECC project as a political pawn to get the tax code changes he wanted from the DFL. And when that failed, he forgot about his previous pledges of support for the DECC project.

Pawlenty's Head Lackey, Brian McClung, is quick to point out that the DFL-controlled Senate didn't set aside any money for the DECC in their original bonding proposal. Of course, Head Lackey conveniently forgot (another trait of politicians - they only remember what they want to remember) that the Republican-controlled House only set aside $3 million when $33.7 million was requested, despite the fact that House Speaker Sviggum pledged his full support to the project.

I'm not going to let the governor get away from this without taking some of the blame. It's just not fair. At any given point, he could have stuck his neck out and demanded that the money for the DECC be put in the bonding bill. Instead, Pawlenty decided that playing political games and making proposals that were designed to make the Democrats appear at fault for the DECC money not being appropriated was more important to his re-election campaign. Some will give him a free pass for this, choosing instead to blame the local leadership. Blame: 35 percent.

Personally, I think they're all to blame. If anyone does their job or keeps their word, the DECC has their money, and we're talking about getting out the shovels and breaking ground on the new arena. Instead, we're left to wonder what will happen next. Will UMD try to build on campus? Will the DECC folks try again in 2007?

TPaw and the DFLers get more of the blame because they showed poor leadership. I'm not a big fan of lobbying, and I don't think a project as important as this should be decided by lobbying. Pick up a newspaper. Visit the area. Talk to people. Find out for yourself how important this project is, and vote on its merits.

All in all, a very disappointing day for Duluth.

It's stunning, really, that the DFL is blaming the governor while the governor blames the DFL. If they ever figure out that they're both at fault, we might start getting somewhere.

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