ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Legislature convened Tuesday with lawmakers and a new governor making hopeful sounds about bipartisan cooperation, as Democrats took control of the House and Republicans maintained their narrow Senate majority.
As lawmakers arrived at the House and Senate chambers, they were greeted by dozens of red-shirted activists from Moms Demand Action and allied groups who handed out cookies and pressed the officials for action on gun control, one of the most divisive issues in Minnesota politics.
The House was called to order around noon and the Senate convened soon afterward. The opening day was devoted mostly to formalities, including the election of Democrat Melissa Hortman as House speaker. Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen, a former speaker, swore her in, and Secretary of State Steve Simon handed her the gavel.
"It's time to take off the blue jerseys and the red jerseys and it's our job to govern here together as Team Minnesota," Hortman told the House. "That doesn't mean we will govern without conflict. ... But if we can have that conflict with good humor and humility, we'll be better off, and Minnesota will be better off."
Meanwhile, new Democratic Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that he's ready to cooperate with lawmakers from both parties. He said he found things to agree with in a five-bill package that Senate Republicans announced Tuesday, especially on mental health and child care.
And he said he was ready to find common ground with Republicans on long-term transportation funding. GOP leaders oppose raising the gas tax, which Walz has proposed, but the governor said he'll continue to work with them. And while he supports renewing the state's 2 percent tax on health care providers — which helps fund health care for low-income Minnesotans and expires at the end of the year — he said he's open to alternative revenue proposals.
But partisan tensions continue to simmer amid all the bipartisan talk, as shown by a long fight over new temporary House rules that served as a reality check. Minority Leader Kurt Daudt argued that the new rules would let Democrats ram through their agenda at the expense of transparency, without adequate public notice. Majority Leader Ryan Winkler disputed that, saying the changes would simply streamline the legislative process. The rules passed on a 74-59 party line vote.
Gun control advocates called on lawmakers to pass mandatory background checks for all gun buyers and a "red flag" law that would let families and police seek court orders to temporarily remove guns from suicidal people or those who endanger others.
At a Moms Demand Action news conference, Hortman vowed that the new Democratic House majority will pass those bills and told the activists she'll rely on them to help get the bills through the GOP-controlled Senate, where their chances are unclear.
A smaller group of conservatives rallied in the Rotunda for protecting the Second Amendment and cutting taxes, as the state has a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus.
Walz reiterated that he supports the two proposals and said gun safety is an area where all sides can find some common ground.
"I think it is absolutely possible to protect Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners and do things that are statistically proven to reduce the chances of either accidents or intentional shootings," he said.
Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and other Senate Republican leaders kicked off the day with a news conference on the first five bills they'll introduce.
They said they'll strengthen mental health programs for students and farmers, make child care more accessible and affordable by reducing regulations on providers, and seek to lower health care costs. They'll also try to reduce child care fraud, prevent waste in the state's troubled information technology programs and bring Minnesota's tax code into sync with the new federal tax law.
The leaders were short on specifics. Gazelka said details will be fleshed out in the committee process.
Gazelka said he personally had a good relationship with former Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who had a contentious relationship with the former House GOP majority. But Gazelka said his talks with Hortman and Walz have made him optimistic for a fresh start.
"We have a governor that is now in office that feels like he'll be more pragmatic. ... It'll definitely be different," he said.