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Legislature: Stadium debate 'took all the energy'

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, right, said debate about building a Vikings stadium took the life out of most other isues in the just-adjourned Minnesota legislative session. With Zellers is House Majority Leader Matt Dean. DON DAVIS | BEMIDJI PIONEER

ST. PAUL - Democrats' term for the just-completed Minnesota legislative session is "do nothing," but if that is true the House speaker said it is because of what he calls Gov. Mark Dayton's top priority.

"I blame it all on the stadium," Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said.

Zellers, who opposed the stadium financing plan, said "it took up so much time, so much air."

Democratic Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth sided with Zellers on that point: "This is what kind of took all the energy out of the room, all the energy out of the building."

Both sides talk more about failings than successes, blaming each other as lawmakers recapped the 2012 session.

"I would say the session was disappointing overall, salvaged by the last two major issues" of public works and stadium spending, Democrat Dayton said.

"If there would be a theme, it would be going from red to black," Zellers said of the state budget ending with a bit of a surplus after recovering from a big deficit.

Dayton, Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, claim to have good personal relationships, but the governor said that being friends only goes so far when they are negotiating contentious policy issues.

"Compromise means we will do it their way," Dayton said about Republicans.

Zellers said Dayton ignores GOP priorities.

The two-year session ended Thursday on the 119th day, tying it for the second longest and just one day short of the number the state Constitution allows.

Some point to approving a Vikings stadium construction plan as a premier accomplishment done with bipartisan work. But as Zellers said, the stadium did not fit into the normal partisan column. Two Republicans led the charge, but more Democrats than Republicans voted for the bill, as well as a public works package.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the session "was about to go down ... as the biggest do-nothing session," but it did not because Democrats were able to put up the votes to approve a stadium.

Bakk said the session likely will have the fewest number of bills signed into law since 1869, something Republicans who believe in smaller government consider a plus.

Republicans decry Dayton's opposition to major tax relief for businesses. The GOP passed bills to eliminate a statewide business property tax and do other things to help business, saying that is the best way to create jobs. Dayton vetoed major tax changes.

At the same time, Dayton and other Democrats argued for a major public works bill as a job creator. Dayton wanted to borrow $775 million to fix and build public facilities statewide, as well as $241 million to renovate a decaying Capitol building.

Republicans wanted to spend much less, but eventually compromised on a $496 million bill including a beginning of Capitol work. Dayton signed it Friday, saying he wanted to spend more that what the Legislature passed was better than nothing.

Some lawmakers said the public works and stadium bills, as well as a few others, prove state leaders worked together.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, for instance, credited GOP leaders and Dayton for approving initiatives surrounding business permitting, protecting school trust land and fee increases for hunting and fishing.

"When you look back over the last couple of years, the governor has signed a lot of bills where we worked together with the administration," he said. "That's what we're supposed to be able to do."

Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, agreed this was a successful session.

"I think we've done a lot," Vogel said, adding that he was optimistic the Legislature's work would stimulate the economy enough to wipe out a projected deficit for the next biennium.

Reinert disagreed with Republicans.

"I don't think there is much to show, not just this year, but for the two years of the biennium," Reinert said. "We have a Vikings stadium, two mediocre bonding bills and two constitutional amendments. I'm a college teacher. I wouldn't give the Legislature any more than a D for that effort."

The constitutional amendments, to be in front of voters Nov. 6, were partisan and controversial. One would ban gay marriages, the other require Minnesotans to show photo identification before voting.

Successful or not, there were problems.

"We've got a crisis every day, I'll tell you that," Senjem said as the session ended.

That especially was true for lawmakers he leads. Those problems began in December, when then-Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, resigned her post after fellow GOP senators confronted her about an affair she had with a Senate employee. The Senate faces legal problems over the incident.

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, faces still-unresolved ethics charges over how he dealt with the aftermath of the Koch scandal.

Senjem, who won his job by a single vote, was a target of fellow Republicans. That especially became public near the end of the session, when some Republican senators questioned his leadership, both in person and via Twitter.

Danielle Nordine contributed to this story.