Guide to a DFL-led legislative session

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2013 - 5:43 PM

Just one party is in power, but then, this was never a party of one mind.

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Governor Mark Dayton and DFL leaders Thomas Bakk and Paul Thissen.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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I'm back at the State Capitol, keeping an eye out for Woodticks.

No, there's no discernible insect infestation in the House that Cass Gilbert Built. (Last week, it was too cold in the basement for pests other than the two-legged kind.)

"Woodticks" were the willful probusiness DFLers who kept lawmaking interesting for reporters and frustrating for DFL leaders when their party last was fully in charge at the Capitol 23 years ago -- as it will be again when the 2013 Legislature convenes Tuesday.

The probusiness faction might adopt a more hip, metro-sounding name this time around, in keeping with the comparative youth and suburban orientation of its adherents. By whatever name, DFLers who aim to stay on the good side of tax-averse businesses will arrive at the Capitol with considerable potential to give their fellow DFLers fits.

A split over keeping business satisfied is just one of the fault lines, trip wires and gaps that could cause DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL legislative leaders to stumble as they attempt to guide the 2013 Legislature to their desired end. Those leaders have a big job ahead of them. Not least will be keeping the fissures that have long existed within DFL ranks from cracking the image they want to create -- that of being the party that knows how to govern.

DFLers control every lawmaking path (save one: any bonding bill needs a supermajority, and that means GOP votes). But one-party rule does not guarantee smooth lawmaking.

Consider these potential sources of intra-DFL conflict:

A generation gap. Growing up in John Kennedy's and Hubert Humphrey's America planted ideas about government quite different from the notions fed to young minds during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Minnesotans who remember the federal government standing up for civil rights are friendlier to government activism than the Gen Xers who often heard that "government is the problem, not the solution."

Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk are both baby boomers. House DFL Speaker-designate Paul Thissen and Majority Leader Erin Murphy rank among Generation X. That could become significant between now and May.

• Geographic gaps. You've got your rural/urban, city/suburban, rural/suburban, regional center/purely rural, north/south, east metro/west metro -- you get the idea. Geography has always mattered almost as much as party at the Capitol. The bigger the majorities, the more that the state map becomes a useful lawmaking guide.

Rural representatives like guns, roads and traditional marriage. Metro representatives like gun control, transit and marriage for all who desire it. High property taxes rankle in the core cities and regional centers. They're not as big a problem in the suburbs.

Bakk is from the state's far northeastern corner. Thissen lives in Minneapolis, Murphy in St. Paul. They're miles apart, literally and maybe figuratively, too.

• The gender gap. The 2013 Legislature will include two fewer women than served in 2011, and this time, all of the top four caucus leaders are male. That plus the fact that a number of women were dealt raw deals by more powerful men in the shakeout that followed redistricting has DFL feminists on alert for slights. For example, they'll be watching how House Tax chair Ann Lenczewski is treated when she goes toe-to-toe with Senate and Dayton administration tax boys.

• The chamber gap. The corridor is short separating the House and Senate, but the policy distance can be long.

Only the House will stand for election in 2014. In previous first years of the four-year Senate term, senators have been emboldened for major changes while the House has been wary of "overreach," the error of catering to one's base that is widely believed to have tripped up Republicans in the 2012 election.

Early signs this year suggest the reverse. It's Bakk who's urging lawmakers to eschew controversies unrelated to budgetary meat-and-potatoes, and Thissen sounding more eager for, say, a bonding bill, the traditional lawmaking dessert. Why? See "generation gap" and "geography gaps" above.

• • •

There's never a surplus of legislators adroit at bridging such gaps. That's why it was a shame to learn last month that Rep. Terry Morrow -- who is -- won't be back. The three-term St. Peter DFLer landed a gig as legislative director of the national Uniform Law Commission, based in Chicago.

He's a triple threat: a lawyer; a Ph.D. communications professor whose scholarly specialties include political compromise, and a politician so respected that he ran without GOP opposition in 2012. Morrow showed what a lawmaker with that vita can do last session, when along with also-departed GOP Rep. Morrie Lanning -- another major loss -- he guided the highly controversial Vikings stadium bill through the House.

If he weren't moving in a few days, I'd suggest that DFL leaders call him for tips about how to put Woodticks, conventional DFLers and cooperative Republicans together to craft ood policy.

Heck, they should call him anyway. I did.

"It will all be about balance," he said, setting aside the papers he was grading from his last class at Gustavus Adolphus College, where he has been a professor for 18 years.

"I'm a great believer in an adversarial system and making communal decisions through deliberation. Everyone should argue for his or her own interests. I want those with questions or concerns to raise them. I expect business to raise its concerns, and I would hope they're backed by credible data and evidence," he said. Legislative leaders should focus on "balancing the competing interests and concerns in a reasonable way that does the best job of moving forward."

He thinks the 2012 election's lesson isn't as much about "overreach" as about the need for compromise. "Minnesotans accept that decisions need to be made, so we can move on. Some in the Capitol in the last few years saw intransigence as a political good. Minnesotans disagree. That's not a quality of leadership they admire. People want it done. They expect value for their dollar, yes, but they want government to function to solve problems," he said.

Members of the new majorities should arrive in St. Paul thinking less about which side of various gaps they stand on and more about how to build consensus. That's key to convincing Minnesotans that, this time, the DFL can be trusted to govern.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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