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Continued: New session opens with cautious hopes for peace

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 21, 2012 - 10:06 PM

Minnesota legislators return to the State Capitol this week with fresh agendas and a strong desire to break up the thick-crusted partisan tensions.

The coming session is widely viewed as a badly needed cooling-off period after the rancor that pushed the state into an unprecedented three-week government shutdown last summer.

A strengthening economy and surprise budget surplus should spare leaders from another budget showdown, but they could clash mightily over what may be the most contentious issue: Where and when to build a Vikings football stadium. The question will be made more difficult by the fact that it is an election year, with few legislators eager to tout public subsidies for sports.

For now, all sides are pledging a laser-like focus on job creation. More common ground may come in the area of reform. Republicans, who control the House and Senate, say they're aiming to make government more efficient and responsive, concepts DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has embraced. "Last year, the rapport seemed to be really superficial, and we knew there was a big blowup coming," said Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. "It can't be like that this year. Neither side will get anything done unless there's a little bit of an ability to work together."

Dayton has proposed a $775 million borrowing package to pay for long-sought projects across the state, even in GOP strongholds.

Uneasy peace

As the session draws near, however, there are ominous signs that the political truce is fragile and that strained relations could soon rupture. Republicans sternly criticized the amount Dayton wants to borrow, and DFLers have blasted Republicans for considering using the session to move forward on divisive issues.

Political survival is driving at least part of the fence-mending at the Capitol. Recent polls show Dayton riding a crest of popularity as Republicans prepare to defend their majorities in November.

Another session marked by gridlock and a legislative meltdown could make that task much harder.

Legislators also must brace for an electoral curveball: The redistricting that occurs once a decade could force colleagues of the same party to compete for reshuffled seats.

The courts are scheduled to release new district maps sometime this session that will account for the state's population shifts. The realigned districts will mean, at a minimum, that legislators will have new areas to represent and new voters to meet.

"As soon as those maps come out, it will be 'just get me out of here,'" predicted former Republican legislator Charlie Weaver, head of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

That means lawmakers have a greater-than-usual interest in making reasonable accomplishments.

Rep. Greg Davids, chairman of the House Taxes Committee, got into a testy argument with Dayton after the government shutdown over who decided to eliminate a long-prized tax credit that largely helped middle-class homeowners.

Now the Preston Republican appears to have little interest in antagonizing the governor.

He has even warmed to a Dayton idea for requiring online retailers to collect sales tax from Internet purchases, which costs the state millions in lost tax revenue and puts brick-and-mortar retailers at a disadvantage.

"In the past, I haven't been real big on that issue," Davids said. "The time is now for Minnesota to jump on it."

Spoilers

Drama lurks in the corners of every session, waiting to take center stage. This year, a round of constitutional amendments and other potentially explosive issues could play the role.

Dayton has already set Republicans on edge by calling for a vote that could unionize some independent child care providers -- a move that could boost union rolls by thousands if it succeeds.

Meanwhile, Republicans are looking over a menu of possible constitutional amendments that include photo ID for voters, a legislative supermajority to raise taxes and making Minnesota a "right-to-work" state. Last year, they passed a proposed constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman, which still has some DFLers steaming. Voters will decide that question this fall.

Opponents see storm clouds gathering.

"They [Republicans] have already introduced ballot initiatives that restrict rights and revenue -- that's a bad way to start," said Eliot Seide, executive director of the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees Council 5.

DFLers say they will oppose such amendments, but they may be powerless against Republican majorities. Proposed constitutional amendments passed by a legislative majority cannot be vetoed by the governor.

A volatile stew

Legislators also may have to deal with fractures from within.

Republicans are still reeling from a scandal that forced Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, to resign her post as Senate majority leader last month. In the aftermath, Sen. David Senjem emerged as the surprise compromise pick to lead the Senate GOP. The genial, mild-mannered Rochester Republican has taken the helm, accompanied by a new slate of untested assistants.

Privately, some GOP senators say the caucus is deeply fractured. Some remain angry at the way a group of senators confronted Koch while others are upset that she didn't resign from the Senate.

A thread of mistrust is running through the caucus over the role that proponents of gambling expansion may have played in sweeping Senjem into leadership. He has a long history of supporting racinos -- video slot machines at horse racing tracks. He maintains the additional money could help pay for a Vikings stadium or repay money the state owes public schools.

That could give Senate DFLers a more powerful hand, since any rift in the GOP caucus would make DFL votes crucial for the passage of significant legislation.

"Therein lies some political opportunity for some compromise," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. "If that results in good, practical decisions, that's a good thing."

Senjem dismissed the idea of simmering feuds, saying Senate Republicans are focused and looking ahead.

"We don't have a budget to worry about, so that takes a lot of pressure off the conversation," he said.

With no budget to balance or crucial issues to resolve, several legislators say the incentive to do nothing could be the strongest tug of all.

"You know," Davids said, "nothing actually has to happen."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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