A newly refurbished State Capitol was the backdrop Tuesday as 201 state legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton embarked on a debate about state spending over the next two years and, more immediately, an attempt to tackle rising costs in the state’s individual health-insurance market.
Dayton offered the new session’s opening salvo by once again asking Republicans, now fully in control of the Legislature, to immediately pass his proposal to buy down steep health insurance premium hikes confronting an estimated 125,000 Minnesotans. They are facing cost spikes in excess of 50 percent from last year to this year, but make too much to qualify for federal subsidies.
Pass it by this Friday, Dayton told legislators at a morning news conference, “so that we can get help to the Minnesotans who need it most.” In response, Republican leaders said they intend to act quickly, though probably not by the end of this week as Dayton demanded.
For new and returning lawmakers, lobbyists and other legislative process participants, the first day of session summoned the atmosphere of the first day of school after a long summer vacation. The House and Senate officially gaveled in at noon on Tuesday, in a day that featured lots of pomp and circumstance.
New members were sworn in, joined by their families and other guests. Tours of the sparkling, reopened Capitol began anew.
“People think of this building as their own,” said Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Cohasset, a new lawmaker from the western edge of the Iron Range who defeated a DFL incumbent. A returning Republican, Rep. Drew Christensen of Savage, was excited to be done with the construction that closed the Capitol for several years and cut off lawmakers from their constituents .
“My favorite days are when they shut the doors of the House chamber and I can still hear the chanting,” Christensen said, referring to the frequent demonstrations that fill the Capitol rotunda during session. “That’s democracy. That’s America.”
Another building occupant, the Minnesota Supreme Court, also returned to conduct its first official business in its historic Capitol chambers for the first time since spring 2014.
Before hearing the day’s first case, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea paused to recognize the refurbished Capitol as “a monument of boundless civic pride.”
The chief justice praised the people who supported the Capitol’s restoration, and those who completed the work. The building, she said, shows off a “magnificent, stately design that not only serves as a testament to the beauty of Minnesota, but also captures Minnesotans’ shared commitment to good government and democratic values.”
On their first day back, the 201 state senators and representatives mainly handled procedural motions, such as formally electing caucus leaders and officers who assist in the daily duties of the Legislature.
State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, was elected majority leader Tuesday, capping a rapid rise to leadership after the previous GOP leader, David Hann, lost his re-election.
A Christian conservative, Gazelka struck a conciliatory note. He cited the biblical prophet Micah in remarks to the Senate: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Gazelka thanked state Sen. Tom Bakk, now the Senate minority leader, for his work on the Capitol restoration, and called for bipartisan cooperation where possible.
“Where we don’t have to be partisan, let’s not be partisan,” Gazelka said.
Bakk, DFL-Cook, impressed on new legislators and his colleagues the privilege of working in the Capitol building. He reminded senators that they were sitting at desks as old as statehood.
“There have only been 1,367 Minnesotans given the privilege to sit in this chamber and represent their constituents,” Bakk said.
In the House, 23 new members took their seats for the first time. Among them was Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, claiming the distinction of being the nation’s first Somali-American state legislator.
Many members were joined at their desks by spouses, parents and children who packed in on folding chairs for an up-close look. They waited through long roll-call votes as the members re-elected Daudt to the chamber’s top position.
In between all the procedure were moments of celebration. Daudt applauded the House’s return to its historic chamber — exactly 112 years after legislators took office upon the building’s completion.
“This building looks better today than it has at any time since 1905,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “It has stood the test of time and is a monument our entire state can take pride in.”
House members applauded the historic number of women elected to serve in their ranks (48 out of 134) and the record-setting tenure of Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, who was first elected in 1972.
Carlson is now the longest-serving lawmaker in Minnesota history. His colleagues recognized him with a standing ovation, and Daudt ribbed him by noting he was born the year after Carlson was first elected.
Dayton did not wait for the Legislature to officially start before he urged lawmakers to pass his premium buy-down proposal by Friday. He said it could be enacted by March 1 if legislators do not delay its passage; the administration has put the price tag at $313 million.
Standing with the proposal’s legislative sponsors, state Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester and state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, Dayton said he is open to negotiating the final details of the plan with Republicans. His proposal aims to cut premium hikes by 25 percent for affected Minnesotans.
Dayton said he would unveil details of longer-term fixes to Minnesota’s health insurance market later this month.
Gazelka conceded that Senate Republicans will be challenged by its razor-thin, one-vote majority. It means all 34 Republican senators must agree to move forward on priorities, likely narrowing their policy options.
In a news conference after the Senate adjourned, Gazelka said he favors relief for ratepayers socked with high premiums but also broader changes to current law. His chief aim, he said, is to improve the risk pool or spread out the risk to more consumers, with a goal of preventing yet another price hike later this year.
Daudt pledged to pass a health care bill by the end of next week. He said it would help Minnesotans facing rising premiums and potentially those who might lose coverage with particular doctors or clinics.
“We want a bill that gets signed by the governor, that’s very important,” Daudt said. “A bill that passes here but doesn’t get signed by the governor doesn’t provide relief, so we need to do that.”
Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she hoped the House could move quickly on health care. But she cautioned that Republicans hadn’t shared any specifics of their plan.
Hortman said the November election made it clear that voters are looking for a change in the way lawmakers do business — and interact with each other.
“What that says to us is: ‘Hey guys, do it differently than you’ve been doing it,’ ” Hortman said. “I think we absolutely can find common ground. It’s time to govern together.”