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New lawmakers willing to negotiate, but not on taxes or total spending

Four Republican lawmakers listen to a Feb. 1 debate about whether Minnesota should allow coal-fired power plants or the state to buy electricity from coal plants. From left are Reps. Paul Anderson of Starbuck, David Hancock of Bemidji, Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa and Dan Fabian of Roseau. Hancock and Fabian are freshman legislators. Pioneer File Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Pressure of the clock ticking toward a potential state government shutdown does not seem to affect the resolve of Republican legislators, many of whom are rookies who say they were elected to keep government in check.

Rep. Dave Hancock of Bemidji summarized the GOP stance: "In the long term, we have to keep spending under control."

But freshman lawmakers say they are willing to bargain on other things.

Twenty-one new Republicans senators (of 67 total senators) and 33 new House Republicans (from 134 total) provide first-year lawmakers with plenty of power, the most of any freshman legislative class in years.

Some GOP rookies and many veterans who stand firm on budget issues suggest that the way out of the impasse may be to offer Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton things he wants, even if they are not on the Republican agenda.

For instance, Republicans have said all year that they do not want a big bill funding public works projects such as constructing new state buildings and fixing existing facilities. Perhaps, some in the GOP say, they could hold their noses and accept a so-called bonding bill this year if Dayton gives up his insistence on raising income taxes on the best-earning Minnesotans.

Another possibility is to negotiate away GOP issues that do not involve money in exchange for Dayton giving up his higher spending target.

"I don't think that anybody is not willing to compromise," first-year Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said. "I just think there are some issues they think are off the table."

New Republican lawmakers say voters put them in office to keep state spending and taxes down. They insist that the $34 billion, two-year budget Republicans passed is enough, and refuse to consider Dayton's proposal to increase taxes close to $2 billion on the 2 percent of Minnesotans who earn the most money.

Because of that dispute, lawmakers and Dayton missed a May 23 deadline for enacting a budget and are nearing a July 1 government shutdown if no deal is made by then.

"We are stuck on one issue, just whether $34.2 billion is enough or whether we need another $1.8 billion," Hancock said. "To me, that is a great argument and a great debating point for the next election. Right now, I don't see it hard to argue that a record budget with a 6 percent increase is sufficient to run the state of Minnesota."

Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa is in his third year as a representative, and his views match those of the new conservative, libertarian lawmakers. He is among those suggesting that Dayton should consider trading his tax-increase proposal for some policy provisions he wants but Republicans may not.

"What are the other things the governor wants?" Drazkowski asked.

Hancock agreed that Dayton should deal on policy items, as well as how to spend money within the GOP's $34 billion limit, which is $3 billion more than many Republicans wanted to spend.

Dayton should "declare victory" that he talked Republicans up $3 billion, Hancock said.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, worked with Dayton early in the legislative session to pass a bill streamlining the state permitting process. With that experience, plus representing Roseau teachers in contract negotiations, he knows one thing: "You don't get everything you want."

Fabian said he is willing to negotiate away some GOP-favored policy items to keep the budget lower.

"I believe most people want to succeed," he said, indicating fellow Republicans probably are willing to compromise. "I think there is some room for negotiations."

Howe said that bonding might be a good trade for Dayton, given the lower interest rates that make borrowing money to fund public works projects more attractive.

"I think there would be a willingness to do some bonding if we can get some spending reduction or not have to raise taxes," Howe said.

However, in answering a reporter's question, Dayton said he was not willing to trade a bonding bill, for instance, for giving up his tax plan.

Howe suggests major tax law changes, but there may not be time to accomplish them by July 1. Still, he said, difficult financial times can lead to reform.

"We are not focusing on what the reforms are, what the needs are and what we can afford," Howe said. "There is too much is focusing on numbers."

While some in the Capitol speculate that the most conservative of lawmakers might like a shutdown to prove that government is not important, legislators disagree.

"It would be the very worst thing that could happen," Drazkowski said of a shutdown, which would occur on July 1 if Dayton and lawmakers do not agree on a budget.

Howe said a shutdown would do no long-term damage, but certainly would hurt the state's finances in the short term.

Fabian said he is optimistic a shutdown can be avoided.

"My sense is that we are going to have a special session sometime before the first, and come to a resolution," Fabian said. "I don't think anybody benefits from a shutdown."

To Hancock, a shutdown is up to Dayton, although he thinks Dayton "is not going to throw Minnesota under the bus to make a statement on taxes."

"The only person who really has control if we go into a government shutdown is the governor," Hancock said, and the DFL governor insists on a tax increase the public does not want.

Republicans say that their record-high $34 billion includes 6 percent more money than the current budget, more than most people see in higher wages.

"If we can increase our budget by 6 percent and if we can hold our line on taxes, what's wrong with that?" Fabian asked.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.