By Don Davis and Danielle Killey
ST. PAUL – Newly elected conservative Republican Minnesota legislative majorities and a new liberal governor took office two years ago, setting the set the stage for rocky state budget negotiations that ended in a state government shutdown.
Today, there is no shutdown talk as a new crop of legislators and the governor prepare for the 2013 legislative session. However, even though Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s office, and agree their main job is approving a balanced budget, the 5-month-long session will not be smooth.
“Job No. 1 is to get our fiscal house in order,” Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said.
On that point, no one disagrees. But how to accomplish it will create some bumps in the road.
Lawmakers start their 2013 session at noon Jan. 8, and must finish by May 20. Between those dates, a two-year budget that could top $37 billion will take most of their time.
“I fully anticipate that we will be able to finish our work on time, balance the budget in a structurally sound way and adjourn by our scheduled time … which is a difference from the last biennium,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader-elect Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said.
Signs indicate despite leadership all being in one political family, the legislative session will be difficult.
For one thing, Democrats admit that groups on their side are leaning on them to pass legislation, especially funding, that they have wanted for years when Democrats shared control with Republicans.
Democratic leaders appear to be approaching the session differently.
Senate Majority leader-Elect Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that most policy items need to wait for future years because lawmakers should focus on the budget in 2013. House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, has appeared more open to discussing non-money issues.
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, is one who wants lawmakers to focus on key matters, like the budget, and not bring in a large variety of issues.
“We just simply cannot deviate off the beaten path and spend time debating issues that are not really important to most of the people back home,” Marquart said. “When you talk to most people ... it is important that we do it (the budget) the right way.”
“Education has always been the state’s No. 1 priority,” said Marquart, new House Education Finance Committee chairman, so it is natural that he thinks the school funding system needs to be improved.
Adding to the question of what may happen in 2013 is the number of new legislators. Nearly a third of the state’s 201 legislators will be new, and the four legislative leaders have not served in those positions before.
With so many new lawmakers, it will take time for everyone to get up to speed on the issues the state faces and how things work in St. Paul.
“I have three to five meetings a day,” Rep.-elect Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, said. “It’s a huge learning curve, but I knew that.”
“This new class is just digging in,” Sen.-elect Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said. “I think the learning curve is going to be steep, but it’s a group that’s in it for the right reasons.”
While Thissen and Bakk were minority leaders the last two years, now they must make decisions about governing, choosing what issues reach the level of public debate as well as influencing the outcome.
As the Jan. 8 session start nears, more people are talking about potential topics.
Gov. Mark Dayton promotes tax reform, without giving specifics beyond “making it fairer, more equitable and better suited for the economy.” He said he still supports increasing taxes on the richest Minnesotans, but has not provided details.
Higher taxes are needed, many Democrats say, to fund areas that have been shorted in recent years. They include higher education and job-creation programs.
“Simply spending more money” is not the answer to the state’s problems, Senate Minority Leader-elect David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said.
Hann and incoming House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, admit that Democrats have the votes to pass nearly anything they want, regardless of what Republicans think.
The exception to the Democratic-Farmer-Laborite power comes in passing a public works construction bill. It requires a super majority, more than Democrats alone can provide.
A big public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, normally is passed in even-numbered years, but Dayton and other Democrats say there are lots of projects awaiting funding and construction costs are low.
Republicans said they might consider a bonding bill, but only after a budget is finished. Dayton agreed.
By Don Davis and Danielle Killey