By Don Davis, Forum News Service

ST. PAUL - A debate about whether Democratic House leaders are plowing under agriculture interrupted an otherwise ceremonial first day of the 2013 Minnesota Legislature.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, took his complaint about what he sees as a move to discredit agriculture to the full House. He said that lumping agriculture funding in with environmental programs, as Democrats did when they took control of the House, will hurt farmers.

“Now is not the time to dismiss agriculture,” Hamilton said, demanding that the House have just one ag committee to deal with both financial and policy issues.

Instead, lawmakers referred the issue to the Rules Committee, where the chairwoman said she does not expect any changes.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she has talked to Hamilton about the issue, and the House will look out for all causes all over Minnesota.

“We are one state,” Murphy said, even though there are many regional differences.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, did not speak on the floor, because of the many visitors on hand for opening-day festivities, but was as upset as Hamilton.

Fabian, who trapped a wolf last month, said he feared that environmentalists who could control the committee will eliminate laws such as the new one allowing wolf trapping and hunting.

“I have a lot of support from people up north,” he said. “There is a lot of apprehension about this.”

For weeks, Hamilton has been outspoken about how agriculture stands in a House with Murphy and Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, coming from the state’s two biggest cities.

“Everybody, I mean everybody, depends on agriculture,” Hamilton said. “During the recession, agriculture was the one shining star.”

Hamilton pleaded with rural Democrats to join him and vote for an ag-only committee: “Rural members, this is your one shot.”

Democrats defeated Hamilton’s request on a party-line vote.

Agriculture Policy Chairwoman Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said that including ag in environmental and natural resources discussions will help others understand farming.

“We actually are enlightening others,” she said, by expanding farm discussion beyond “aggies” that dominate ag committees.

House Minority leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, also complained about DFL leaders. He said GOP Reps. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa and Anne Wills of Apple Valley did not get the committee assignments they wanted, claiming Thissen violated a House rule in rejecting their requests.

Daudt withdrew his formal challenge after being promised the issue will be discussed Thursday.

The House was in session for nearly two hours, while the Senate spent less time on opening day. Much of the time was used electing leaders.

The 2013 Legislature faces the main question of how to adopt a two-year budget with a $1.1 billion deficit. Lawmakers will be asked to approve higher taxes on the rich, as well as to reform the tax system so property taxes do not rise as quickly.

Non-budget issues such as gun control and gay marriage await hearings, too, but legislative leaders say the budget work must come first.

The Legislature features more rookie lawmakers than usual, 20 out of the 67-member Senate and 44 from the 134-member House. Two of the newly elected House members resigned Monday after accepting new jobs, leaving those seats empty until special elections can be held.

The state Constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn by May 20.

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Common ground

“The spirit of our debates should always be about finding solutions and common ground,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said. “I’m confident we all bring a genuine desire to govern first.”

Republicans said they will make the best of the situation.

“We think that is constructive, to have robust debate,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said in his remarks to senators.

Bakk encouraged lawmakers to stop and take in the Capitol and their role before they get into the day-to-day work.

“Today is one of those days … when I kind of have to pinch myself,” Bakk said. He told senators to remember why they ran for office, to make a difference.

“As we put the campaign behind us and leave rhetoric at the door,” Bakk said, lawmakers still should remember the things they learned and heard from their district residents before and since the election.

Bakk said the budget is a top priority for this session, and establishing a state health care exchange is also among his top five issues.

“Minnesotans should expect that with DFL control of the legislative and executive branches, we’ll be able to work together to make much needed reforms in the state budget,” Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said. “If that does not happen, we will have failed and will have no one else to blame.”

Democrats were optimistic they will govern well.

“For example, I don’t think you’ll be seeing shutdowns,” Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said of potential differences under Democratic control. “But there are still differences within the party. … There’s definitely going to be a need for compromise.”