Session’s warm start quickly turns chilly

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE, JENNIFER BROOKS and BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2012 - 10:28 PM

Gracious words quickly gave way to partisan bickering as the Legislature reconvened Tuesday.

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There were hugs and handshakes, prayers and heartfelt calls for unity as the Legislature returned to St. Paul Tuesday for the first time since last summer's historic state shutdown.

The bipartisan glow lasted all of 30 minutes.

Moments after new Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, embraced the Senate as a "family," he infuriated minority Democrats by cutting DFL staff positions in the Legislature. DFL legislators began a longshot drive to prevent a November vote on an amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Republicans offered three other hot-button topics for constitutional amendments and the polarizing issue of unionizing child-care workers landed in committee.

"So much for bipartisan cooperation,'' said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who was angered by the staff cuts. "Clearly, we're not getting off to a very good start.''

The second year of the 2011-2012 biennial session began with high hopes for a short and effective session focused broadly on job creation, a point underlined by a demonstration against economic inequality that rang out Tuesday in the Capitol rotunda.

Unburdened by the $5 billion deficit that triggered last year's breakdown between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled House and Senate, lawmakers hope this year to bear down on funding capital projects, consensus on building a new Vikings stadium, streamlining government and taking other steps to improve the state's climate for job creation.

The day began with sweet and emotional moments on the House and Senate floors.

The House was gaveled to order by Speaker Kurt Zellers' two young children. While bitter partisanship garnered the headlines in the previous legislative session, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, rose to speak about "the outpouring of kindness and love" from colleagues, staff members and total strangers after his 22-year-old son, Josiah, died unexpectedly last September.

"I didn't realize how many people share this kind of pain. They're everywhere," Abeler said.

In the Senate, veteran Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, arrived profoundly weakened by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As he tried to address colleagues, the chamber fell silent. Kubly struggled to get words out and then punched a button on his computer and held the microphone to its speaker.

"I would like to thank all the members and the staff who have written or e-mailed to say you were keeping me in your thoughts and prayers," a computerized voice said. "I appreciate them very much."

The chamber broke into applause and Kubly, who has served in the House and Senate since 1996, sat back in his chair, tears welling in his eyes.

Senjem addressed the Senate for the first time since replacing former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, who stepped down in December after admitting to an improper relationship with a subordinate. "This is family," Senjem said. "We will have differences, families will have differences."

Koch, the force behind the new Senate Republican majority, quietly walked to her Senate seat, hugging and shaking hands with colleagues. She did not address the Senate, as some had speculated she might, but sat silent during the session and slipped out as journalists converged on Senjem for comments.

Partisan clashes

The partisan battle was renewed when the Senate Rules Committee convened for the first business of the session -- passing a new Senate budget that targeted layoffs exclusively to DFL staffers. Forced to cut its budget by 5 percent, or $2.6 million, the Rules Committee approved a series of cutbacks, two days of furloughs for Senate staffers and $444,000 worth of layoffs -- 12 to 14 full-time DFL employees.

"Members, this is a dangerous precedent you're setting," said Bakk, who made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the bill to spread the cuts among both parties.

Amending the constitution was already a sore point after last year's legislative fight over a constitutional proposal to define marriage exclusively as the union of a man and woman. That issue is headed for the November ballot, but Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill Tuesday to undo that action.

Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said he is not inclined to remove it from the ballot. "It's with the people now. The citizens will decide," he said.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said several other constitutional amendments may get on the ballot. Proposed amendments can go directly to the ballot if both houses approve, circumventing Dayton's veto pen. Thompson said he expects the Republican majorities to approve a constitutional amendment to require voters to present photo ID at the polls, another to restrain spending and a third to limit unions' power by making Minnesota a "Right to Work" state.

Dayton said Tuesday he believes legislating by constitutional amendment is "bad governance.''

Legislators got to work quickly on the politically charged issue of child-care unionization. The House Commerce and Regulatory Reform Committee debated and passed a bill to prohibit union dues from being deducted from state child-care subsidies paid to providers.

"Are you just trying to stick it to unions?" asked an opponent, Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.

Just before the session started, former state Rep. Doug Peterson, now president of Minnesota Farmers Union, mingled with legislators in their office building and offered his prediction for the session: "It's going to be short, unproductive and vicious."

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049 Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044 Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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  • Sen. Amy Koch was greeted by Republicans Ted Daley, left, and David Sanjem, right, in her first floor appearance since being ousted as majority leader.

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