Politics Hotdish: DFL House and DFL Senate's 'great relationship' doesn't look so great right now

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Sen. Rod Skoe and Rep. Ann Lenczewski, both chairs of tax committees, sat together for the State of the State speech in 2013 at Lenczewski's desk on the floor.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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In the Minnesota Legislature this year, great relationships are not so great.

“We have a great relationship with the Senate. Don’t be fooled,” House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, told reporters last week.

Shortly thereafter, she asked her House colleagues to talk to senators to get them to pass the tax bill the House had just overwhelmingly approved. The Senate still hasn’t followed suit.

Although there is yet time for the two chambers to join forces, the Democrats controlling both houses have had a rocky relationship in 2014. And their troubles could drive key Democratic issues off a cliff shortly before the House and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton face voters in this year’s election.

The friction appeared as soon as lawmakers retuned to the Capitol in late February.

On day one, at Dayton’s urging, the House approved $20 million in spending to help low-income Minnesotans with their heating bills. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the Senate might need to mull over the measure. The Senate eventually passed the measure and got the aid out the door.

That same week, the House smacked around the idea of a new legislative office building that would house senators, something Bakk wants.

“I think we have a question before us that needs some thought,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said of the building. That thought has, so far, stopped the building from moving forward. The House Rules Committee would need to sign off on the plans and has not even scheduled a meeting to do so.

While some at the Capitol think the House blockade of the Senate building is at the root of the tension between the two chambers, Bakk shrugged off that idea last week. He said he hadn’t even thought of holding out on other issues to get the building approved. “Everyone knows how I feel. The new building is critical to keeping the renovations of our State Capitol on schedule,” Bakk said.

Unlike House members and Dayton, the Senate is not up for election this year, which may give senators a little less reason to speed measures through their chamber. And as the House is slow-walking its approval of the office building, the Senate is taking its time to approve a politically popular tax cut bill that the House passed and Dayton says is urgently needed.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have a bill next week and if not … the people of Minnesota will be hearing more from me on this subject,” Dayton said.

Bakk and Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said the Senate probably will pass a tax bill soon, but not by Dayton’s Wednesday deadline and perhaps not in the exact form Dayton and the House have supported.

“We’re in the third week of the legislative session and passing a major tax bill … takes more than just a couple weeks to consider,” Bakk said. “We are going to do our due diligence. … This is about what is good tax policy for Minnesota.”

Tucked among the tax cuts the House and Dayton want: undoing business-to-business tax increases that Senate leaders backed last year and successfully wrestled into law.

And then there’s the minimum wage.

Raising Minnesota’s wage floor, which is lower than almost every other state’s, was a top priority for DFL allies this year and one that legislative leaders and Dayton pledged would get done.

But instead of action on that, House and Senate leaders have exchanged biting words and engaged in a standoff.

Now, Dayton said he believes what had been a top priority will likely fall into end-of-session wrangling.

Bakk, who spent six years in the House before moving on to the Senate, said he is just fine with the tension.

“It’s a bicameral system,” he said. “I think it would be fair to say in my 20 years here, it’s been very unusual for the House and Senate to be on the same page on a very consistent basis.”

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, had a similar take. “We’re getting along the way the House and Senate always get along,” he said.

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