As legislators head into the last days of a bitterly divided session, a solution for the state's $5 billion budget dilemma could rest in the hands of a group not known for its clout -- freshmen legislators.

Their sheer numbers propelled Republicans to dominance in the House and Senate for the first time in decades, and many came to the Capitol determined to make some noise. Dissatisfied with their party's old no-new-taxes pledge, they raised the stakes: No new revenue.

Rep. Rich Murray, a small-business owner whose Albert Lea swing district went for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said his purpose is clear. "Elections never bothered me," he said. "I came here for two years." After five months of legislating, he said, "I've actually moved a little further right when I see there's a lot going on in government that we could do a lot better."

But the realities of negotiations -- and potentially nasty reaction from voters facing deep cuts back home -- may test their nerve in the next few days. Some of the freshmen face unique challenges: Rep. King Banaian, who barely eked out a victory in his St. Cloud swing district, could see substantial cuts to state aid on which St. Cloud depends. Sen. Benjamin Kruse, the first Republican to represent Brooklyn Park in decades, will have to explain to constituents -- a number of whom are renters -- why Republicans cut the renters' credit and would push the low-income Minnesotans off state-backed health care programs.

So far, the GOP's freshman class shows few signs of backing down, even though the state may be on track for a special session or even a rare government shutdown.

Capitol veterans such as Roger Moe, who as a DFL Senate majority leader went toe-to-toe with 20 years of governors, said a position like that "doesn't leave a lot of room for compromise, and this place is all about compromise. No one side is going to get everything they want. And eventually everybody has to realize that."

Dayton has been firm in his insistence that the state's rich are not paying their "fair share." Republicans -- particularly the freshmen -- say voters sent them to the Capitol to stand against bigger government and higher spending and that they won't cave on their most basic principle.

"A lot of freshmen believe they were brought here for a specific reason, and that was to draw some lines," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dave Thompson, a freshman from Lakeville who has become one of the highest-profile new members. "And we've got a lot of freshman members who are willing to assert themselves."

The tension is starting to weigh on several of the newbies. While they vowed to beat down government spending, they also pledged a business-like devotion to finishing on time.

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, is among those striking a less strident tone.

"There's a group that said not a penny more," said Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove. "But I think people have to be realistic and willing to compromise a little bit."

Kriesel staunchly opposes a tax hike, but he is not opposed to new revenue. He supports an expansion of gambling to help bridge the gap. That, too, goes against part of his party's platform. Said Kriesel: "If people are so locked in on a party platform, then we could just have robots down here pushing buttons."

He admits that "compromise" is not a word spoken by many in his party. "But that's why I have a happy marriage, is compromise," said Kriesel, who knows Dayton won his district by five percentage points.

Other rookie Republicans say they believe their unwavering stand will resonate with constituents, regardless of whether there is a special session or government shutdown.

"As to taxes, we've pretty well said that's not going to happen," said Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville. "How that gets worked out on the governor's side is up to him. But we've been clear about it."

Banaian, who won narrowly after a recount, said he campaigned on a pledge to hold down taxes -- and he won, if only by a few votes.

"Compromise might, if you want to think about it in those crass terms, might buy you votes from the side that didn't vote for you," said Banaian, a St. Cloud State University economist. "But it might cost you votes from the side that did. I'm not sure that's a bargain."

More-seasoned legislators warn that the stormy rhetoric from some of the freshmen is of little use in the end.

"They are a very bright group ... and they have some opinions on things," said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont. "But they also have to realize that the endgame is a totally different beast than the process we have gone through in the beginning."

As the majority party, Republicans must reach an accord with the governor and pass a budget that will fund state government over the next two years, Rosen said. "We need to get that in our heads and keeping pounding that issue," she said.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288 Eric Roper • 651-222-1210

BUDGET INTRANSIGENCE INTACT

Dayton says he'll hold out for tax increase, but it didn't stop the House from vetoing his bill. B1