Minnesota legislators torn: Work or go home?

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON AND , RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER
  • Updated: April 1, 2012 - 8:51 PM

Some are ready to campaign, but others in the GOP majority want to advance their agenda.

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State Sen. Dave Thompson

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Minnesota legislators are edging toward a historically early end to the legislative session, potentially ditching dozens of prized initiatives in their determination to head home and hit the campaign trail.

The race toward early adjournment is revealing a fresh divide among Republicans who control the Legislature: some who want to end this week and others who want to soldier on well into April to complete a more ambitious agenda -- maybe even a new Minnesota Vikings stadium.

Legislators have much at stake in the session's outcome, particularly as they face re-election in districts with newly redrawn political boundaries. If they get bogged down in controversial proposals, they risk alienating or angering voters. That has many arguing for a stripped-down agenda and a quick exit.

"As far as I am concerned, if we can block a whole bunch of spending in a bonding bill and get the photo ID bill done, that's enough," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who faces his first re-election.

The breakaway speed of the legislative session has left many hard-fought GOP proposals in limbo, including teacher tenure changes, a plan to speed repayment to public schools and tax measures Republicans hope will improve the state's economic recovery. Some Republicans are unhappy about that. They say constituents and business leaders handed them control of the Legislature nearly two years go with the expectation they would usher in big changes -- and now they feel obliged to deliver.

Unfinished business

"We are going to leave a lot of unfinished business, not just the stadium," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, who chairs the state government finance committee and is the chief House sponsor of the stadium bill. "I don't think legislators want to leave in a hurry to go home to citizens who say you didn't do your job."

A session that started with a budget surplus and pledges for unity was quickly shot to pieces by partisan bickering and a string of gubernatorial vetoes.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans who control the Legislature had to confront the lingering fallout from a Senate sex scandal, an ethics inquiry and a growing list of retirements that could leave political control of the Legislature up for grabs.

The first two months of session were a wild and unpredictable ride, marked more by partisan rancor than accomplishment. So far this session, legislators have passed just 30 proposals. Two years ago, they sent more than 210 bills to the governor.

Capitol insiders envision a burst of last-minute deal-making if legislative leaders get behind the plan that already has the firm backing of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Republicans have pushed hard on a menu of tax changes and education overhauls that Dayton has spoken harshly against, but which could get new life as part of a compromise on the stadium bill. The GOP has left room to add sweeteners to the bonding proposal that could bring along the stray Democrat or Republican who is leery about a stadium deal. Even some of Dayton's commissioner appointments, who await Senate confirmation, could come into play.

"It's really a question of the willingness of the legislative leaders," Dayton said of the stadium. "If they want it, especially the majority leader, it will get done. And if they don't, whether they have two days or two weeks or two months, it won't happen."

But with all 201 legislative seats up for re-election, the thirst to broker a complex deal may lose out to a growing itch to flee the Capitol and hit the campaign trail.

"The tulips are up, the bushes are budding and it's time to go home," said Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, amid buzz that next Friday's targeted start for spring recess could instead become a final adjournment.

Senjem has been cajoling lawmakers into adjourning by the end of the week, more than a month before the constitutionally mandated end. House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, would prefer to go till the end of April. That would still be the earliest adjournment in 14 years.

Meanwhile, Viking supporters are racing round the clock to patch together a proposal that can win approval before adjournment.

The nearly $1 billion taxpayer-funded Vikings stadium proposal has left many legislators twisted in political knots. They worry that a vote to subsidize the billionaire owners of the Vikings could snuff out some re-election hopes. But a "no" vote could leave them open to blame if the team leaves the state.

"We are at a difficult point in the session right now," said Senjem.

Adding to their predicament, downtown Minneapolis business leaders are pressuring lawmakers to stick around long enough to complete a stadium deal that has already been years in the making.

"Legislators, and especially the Republican majority, have a lot to prove to the business community," said former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner, a public affairs consultant with deep ties o business.

Horner said many business leaders felt they played a crucial role in the Republicans' stunning 2010 upset victories in the House and Senate. Eager to hold on to their majorities, Republicans already are importuning the business community for campaign support.

"If you want our help, you need to show us you can deliver on a significant piece of economic legislation," Horner said. "This stadium will be an important test."

Quit while you're ahead?

Democrats and some Republicans say the GOP majority may be better off getting away from the mess at the Capitol. Despite their one-party rule, the Republican-led House and Senate have vast differences on the bonding bill and other legislation. Senate Republicans have an unresolved ethics complaint hanging over former Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel, and former staffer Michael Brodkorb could sue the Senate in coming weeks, touching off a potentially expensive, nasty and high-profile legal fight.

"We're mired down in all this other stuff," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

Bakk said lawmakers should pass a jobs bill, a bonding bill and then "everybody just go home. We are doing nothing but damage to the institution that I think all of us have a serious responsibility to protect."

Even a former Republican legislative leader is telling legislators to head for the exit.

Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, is drawing attention to a long list of "trivial bills" that keep popping up, including proposals to name the official state dirt, ban the impersonation of barbers and seventeen bills concerning license plates.

"The list of meaningless legislation goes on and on," Krinkie wrote to taxpayer league supporters. "Legislative leaders shouldn't wait until late April to end this do-nothing session; they should pull the plug now!"

Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report. Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044

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