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Pipeline, gun control fights return to Minnesota Capitol

The House floor is seen during the first day of the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature at the State Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 6
Minnesota House members were sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, at the Capitol. Mike Longaecker / Forum News Service2 / 6
Lawmakers returned to the Minnesota State Capitol Jan. 8, 2019, for the reconvening of the Legislature. Michael Brun / Forum News Service3 / 6
Minnesota House members were sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, at the Capitol. Mike Longaecker / Forum News Service4 / 6
Gov. Tim Walz is sworn in as Minnesota's 41st Governor by Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea during his inauguration at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Monday, Jan. 7. Joining Walz, to his left, are his son Gus, wife Gwen, and daughter Hope. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press5 / 6
A group that supports the construction of the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline traveled to the Capitol Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, to urge the Walz administration to let the project move forward. DANA FERGUSON / FORUM NEWS SERVICE 6 / 6

ST. PAUL -- It was a week of change in the Capitol.

On Monday, Jan. 7, Democrat Tim Walz was sworn into office, becoming the state's 41st governor.

A day later, a new and historically diverse group of lawmakers took their oaths of office, flipping the power structure in the Legislature and setting up the country's only split statehouse.

Legislative leaders shared their first priorities, agreeing on some of the state's top problems but diverging on how best to solve them. And they struck a friendly tone despite dust-ups on the first day.

Now, lawmakers and the new administration need to work together to write a nearly $50 billion state budget and navigate how they'll drive down health care costs, improve education outcomes and make schools safer for Minnesota students despite disagreements.

Walz sworn in with 'One Minnesota' message

Walz succeeded former Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday, Jan. 7, in a ceremony that emphasized his background in teaching and highlighted the diversity of the group of constitutional officers taking the oath of office.

And in his first address in the new role, he doubled down on campaign promises to make Minnesota the top state for education, improve access to health care and to ensure all communities thrive.

"We must again find the opportunity in our challenges. Instead of burying our head in our hands when it comes to our changing climate or to providing affordable housing, accessible healthcare and good-paying jobs, we must tackle them head on," Walz said. "But we can only do this if we come together."

Democrats stood ready to work with the new governor, but Republicans raised red flags about likely new taxes or fees that would be required to make Walz's plans a reality.

The state's business community also signaled that it would oppose some of Walz's top priorities and pressed the new governor on how he could make the state more welcoming for business.

Pipeline debate picks up again

Right away, supporters and opponents of a pending oil pipeline projects saw an opportunity to make a renewed pitch. Groups of people backing and opposing the construction of the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline booked meetings with the governor and carried into his office letters stating their position along with binders full of documents outlining their cases.

Walz said his team would take a fresh look at the Dayton administration's appeal of the permit, which blocked construction. Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley is reviewing the permit and the appeal, Walz said, but ultimately the final decision to pull the appeal will fall to the governor.

"The decision will stop with me but it will be informed with all the stakeholders involved," he told reporters on Friday.

Working across a split statehouse

In the Capitol, legislators were sworn in on Tuesday. Republicans hold a two-seat advantage in the Senate while the House flipped to DFL control.

Leaders in each chamber entered the legislative session with requests that their colleagues drop partisan divides and work together.

“It’s our job to govern here together as team Minnesota," new House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park said.

But the tone quickly turned tense as House Republicans called into question a rule change that would impact membership on committees and how bills can travel through committees. GOP lawmakers spent almost two hours on the House floor arguing that the change would make it harder for Minnesotans to track bills and keep up with legislation they cared about.

“In their very first action here on the House floor, they are going to make this process difficult to follow," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. “You’re about to see a real game of legislative three-card Monte.”

Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to previous House leadership that had used the same model and emphasized that they’d press committee leaders to get hearing information published days ahead of their meetings.

Later in the week, Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said they had a slate of noncontroversial bills that they were confident could pass, setting up "early wins" for both parties.

“We have a fresh start," Gazelka said. "We have a governor that is now in office that feels like he’ll be more pragmatic."

But as they set their top priorities, Republicans and Democrats brought different solutions for tackling some of the state's most pressing problems.

Republicans brought proposals that would improve access to mental health services, bring down the price of health care and expanding access to childcare.

Democrats, meanwhile, said they'd push to allow people to opt into the state-funded MinnesotaCare program, set up a paid family leave program for employers and require universal background checks to buy guns.

Walz said he'd sign the gun control bill along with another DFL proposal to remove a person's guns if they pose a danger to themselves or others. But Republicans said the bill was an overreach and planned to oppose it.

Hortman and Gazelka said lawmakers would likely have to meet in the middle to get bills to a place that both the DFL-led House and GOP-led Senate could pass. Hortman said each proposal was like a chunk of clay.

“What the sculpture will look like at the end of session," Hortman said, "that is the work of this session."