Minnesota DFL legislative leaders began to lay out a broad agenda Wednesday, one they said will focus squarely on strengthening the middle class and balancing the state budget without gimmicks.
"We continue to face an economy, although recovering, where the middle class continues to be squeezed," said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
DFLers did not offer many details on the second day of the legislative session, but in addition to balancing the budget they said they want to invest more in education and restore fairness to the state's tax system. With control of both chambers, DFLers said they have an unprecedented chance to make changes that were blocked by Republicans the last two years.
Republicans cautioned DFLers against skimping on difficult budget cuts and instead relying on a menu of tax hikes that might jeopardize the state's fragile economy.
"We think this is a time for prudence, a time for caution and not a time to blow out the budget with excessive spending," said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL- Cook, invited Republicans to participate in the budget negotiations. But he reacted harshly to Republicans who said in recent days that the current $1.1 billion projected deficit is not that big of a deal since they beat back a much larger, $6 billion shortfall. Bakk noted that the GOP's solution relied heavily on borrowing from schools and selling bonds that will take 20 years to repay.
"Cool your jets," Bakk said to Republicans, who just lost control of both chambers. "We don't think you were all that successful and we don't think Minnesotans thought you were all that successful."
DFLers have already begun filing their first proposals, including bills to pay for all-day kindergarten and another, from Bakk, to make it more difficult for legislators to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. DFLers have criticized the GOP for using their time in leadership to put measures on the ballot that would have forced Minnesotans to show a government ID to vote and another to install a ban on same-sex marriage in the state Constitution. With a lot of help from DFLers, both measures failed.
DFLers are expected to roll out their first major bills in coming days. The bills offered by leaders are designed to set the tone of the session and give voters a sense of leaders' priorities.
Before legislators got too deep into the session, about half of the Legislature spent the day at the University of Minnesota hearing how to think big, get along and become leaders.
"I wouldn't call a lot of what you do leadership. I would call it the practice of political authority and mediocre problem solving," Ronald Heifetz, the founder of Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership, told lawmakers.
He encouraged legislators to help constituents understand that their expectations of government are unrealistic.
Meanwhile, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's administration urged Minnesota business leaders to enter the debate about the budget and others issues.
At a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce dinner Wednesday night, Dayton chief of staff Tina Smith told business leaders who generally have opposed the governor that there are many areas where the two sides can work together.
Dayton and business leaders agree in such areas as early-childhood education, improved transportation systems and retooling the state's workforce to meet the demands of employers, Smith said.
"We are eager to get to work with you, and the Legislature, to balance the state's budget responsibly and fairly," Smith said. The goal, she said, is to make Minnesota "truly a state of innovation and excellence."
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044