A $90 million new Senate office building and parking ramp. A minimum-wage increase. Nearly $1 billion in new state-backed construction projects.
These controversial initiatives are turning what was touted as the “unsession” into the typical fractious legislative session — except this time it’s DFLer vs. DFLer.
While they are in firm control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, DFLers have not agreed on the two major issues hanging over the Capitol — the minimum-wage hike and the proposed office building.
With House and Senate DFLers divided, Republicans see a rare opening as they prepare for an election season in which control of state government hangs in the balance.
House Speaker Paul Thissen and House DFLers are determined to pass the $9.50 minimum-wage increase this year; it has the strong support of labor and low-income advocacy groups.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and other Senate DFLers remain firmly opposed to a provision that would automatically raise the base wage along with inflation, creating uncertainty for business owners and the potential for new infighting when the inflation debate resurfaces each session.
Senate DFLers remain just as committed to the new building for members, freeing up space in the Capitol and a neighboring building where GOP senators are stuffed into tiny offices, some in a grim basement.
House DFLers are concerned about the cost of the glass-faced building that some have described as opulent and that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has called “unMinnesotan.”
Both initiatives have been frozen for weeks, stalled by bickering or outright silence.
A powerful House committee is the last thing blocking a final go-ahead for the building. House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, has been talking to the administration about other space options for the Senate and about whether a new building could be constructed for less expense.
Ready to deal?
Bakk, meanwhile, dove into the minimum-wage debate with an idea of his own — a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage and let voters decide on tying it to inflation, a move that would snuff out a political win for Thissen in an election year.
Thissen, of Minneapolis, rejected the idea outright: “I am not sure that the minimum wage is something that fits in the Constitution.”
Rank-and-file legislators say privately that the best and most likely solution is some kind of deal that covers both issues. Under such a scenario, Senate DFLers would give some ground on the wage hike and House leaders would approve the new building.
Bakk dismissed the idea of connecting the two measures.
“I don’t see any pathway where anything can be linked to the minimum wage,” he said.
After a week of stagnation and Republicans bashing the building project, Thissen and Bakk talked privately Friday morning, emerging with a new willingness to resolve the issues that have divided them for weeks.
“I’d like to make a deal,” said Bakk, of Cook.
Thissen said he could live with the new building, as long as an analysis concludes it is the best deal for taxpayers.
“I think if the data comes back and says this is the least expensive option, [we] will consider that very seriously,” he said.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer leading negotiations for the minimum-wage hike, believes that the Senate could be open to some kind of movement on the issue.
“It is crazy to not get it done this session,” Winkler said. “And we will get it done.”
Resolving both issues comes with political consequences for DFLers.
Republicans consider the proposed Senate office building unnecessary and overpriced. Around the Capitol, they call it the “majority maker,” meaning one of the best chances they have for regaining control of the House.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, a Crown Republican, said the DFL drama over the building has ground the session to a halt.
“The building is holding up everything else,” Daudt said. “It’s a good example of overreach.”
Dayton’s five top GOP challengers came to the Capitol late last week for a news conference specifically to bash the project and the governor — even though he has been one of the most vocal critics of the project.
Marty Seifert of Marshall called the building “opulent and unnecessary.” Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove said the building is poorly conceived as potholes go unfilled and too many Minnesotans remain out of work. Orono businessman Scott Honour said that if he were elected, he would sublet the building to commercial tenants and use the revenue to pay for it.
Focus on bonding
Barring an unforeseen fracture among DFLers, however, Republicans have no power to block the building or the minimum-wage boost.
So they are focused on the measure to spend roughly $1 billion for state-backed construction projects, which could bring thousands of new construction jobs. State borrowing requires a supermajority, so it is one of the few areas where Republicans have some pull.
Historically, the party in leadership can build bipartisan support for such spending by adding construction projects in districts controlled by the other party.
Legislative leaders previously agreed to borrow roughly $850 million, but the state’s improving economy has some DFLers wanting to go higher — a move that could give Republicans even more say.
“Bonding is where we have the leverage,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes.
State Rep. Alice Hausman, a St. Paul DFLer who chairs the Capital Investment Committee, is lining up votes — DFL and Republican — for a larger proposal.
“There’s huge pressure, huge desire,” Hausman said. “It’s a tricky, tricky thing.”