Smiles precede legislative work ahead
ST. PAUL - The five men gathered like at a family reunion, showing broad smiles and greeting each other with firm handshakes.
Those smiles among top Minnesota policymakers, however, faded and at times disappeared into frowns, foretelling what appears likely to be a sometimes-cooperative, sometimes-contentious legislative session that begins at noon Tuesday.
The five are the four legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton. They were briefing the media about their predictions for the 2012 legislative session that follows an ugly one, with a special budget session, last year.
The five avoided talking specifics, but made it clear they agree in concept on at least one issue: the need to reform state government to encourage businesses to hire more people and make government more efficient.
"We have our legitimate disagreements about how we can achieve those goals," Democrat Dayton said, but said he hopes he and the Republican-controlled Legislature can continue some reforms that began last year.
"It was a great pleasure working with the governor last year on some of these reform initiatives," House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove said.
Dayton said the two sides can work together.
"To me it is not an issue of trust, it is how we reconcile our different views," Dayton said.
But, Dayton quickly added, some Republicans last year considered "compromise" a bad word and made last year contentious.
That divisiveness may not be as commonplace this year, in a large part because no massive budget deficit awaits action like it did last year. As Zellers said, Republicans and Dayton "have a good track record" on non-budget issues.
In 2012, many factors come together to affect Minnesota's 201 legislators. The prime political influence will be revealed on Feb. 21 when a five-judge panel releases new legislative district maps.
All legislative seats are up for election in the fall.
"We don't live in a vacuum; we're always impacted by the political climate," Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said. "I'm pretty confident that redistricting will play a role in the legislative session."
Even without a budget conflict, there is plenty to do in the coming weeks.
The most-discussed issue, no doubt, will be a stadium for the Vikings football team and other uses that now keep the Metrodome busy much of the year.
"It would be nice to put this Vikings thing behind us," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said, after legislators have spent more than a decade debating the issue.
Interviews with a wide cross section of legislators showed many with the same attitude about a stadium, but with widely differing ideas about funding one.
Those interviews also pointed the desire to tackle many other subjects in the next few months.
The main issue of an even-numbered year session often is a bonding bill, a measure funding public construction projects by the state selling bonds.
"That is just responsible governance," Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said.
Most legislators appear to like the idea of a bonding bill, although they present far different views about how much to spend and what to fund. House bonding Chairman Larry Howes, R-Walker, said he does not plan to unveil a bonding bill until early March, even though Democrats led by Dayton want it debated early.
Controversial constitutional amendment proposals also are likely to surface, mostly pushed by Republicans. One that appears ready for debate is whether to require voters to show photographic identification at the polls. But others, ranging from protecting the right to own guns to making it harder to raise taxes, also are on deck.
Some legislative leaders want to condense the session into what could be the shortest annual meeting in years. While earlier they were thinking about leaving for the year on April 30 (with a couple vacations tucked in), in recent weeks much of the talk has centered on an early-April adjournment.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, however, said the session should last as long as needed, and will not establish an adjournment deadline. "We will get out when we are done."
A new Senate leadership team took over last month, when the old team resigned following former Majority Leader Amy Koch's admission of an improper relationship with a Senate employee.
"We need to look forward," Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said. "Many people on both sides respect Sen. Senjem. (He) has a great reputation of being open and willing to hear different ideas."
Howe said the new majority leader and his team have shown a willingness to be more open and transparent.
"I think relationships will improve," Howe said. "I think it's a good thing not only for the Senate majority but for the state of Minnesota."