Minnesota legislators inching closer to stalemate

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2012 - 8:08 AM

With all 201 legislative seats up for election in November, the testy climate at the Capitol is setting up another possible stalemate, in which legislators might opt to take their grievances to the campaign trail.

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Things looked different on opening day of 2012 in the House of Representatives.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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There's no deal in sight on a new Vikings stadium. Plans to cut business taxes and teacher tenure reforms are in limbo. Even the top bipartisan priority of a job creation package is now in doubt.

DFL Gov Mark Dayton and GOP legislators arrived at the Capitol in January vowing to make much more progress than they did last year, when an acrimonious legislative session led to the longest government shutdown in state history.

Now, as legislators head home for a weeklong break, they are left to explain to constituents how their work over the past two-plus months in St. Paul might result in one of the least productive sessions in recent history.

"We are limping along, limping along, nobody can make a decision," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

With all 201 legislative seats up for election in November, the testy climate at the Capitol is setting up another possible stalemate, in which legislators might opt to take their grievances to the campaign trail.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers is still pushing hard on GOP initiatives to reduce corporate taxes and make life easier for Minnesota businesses, while at the same time downsizing Dayton's job-creation proposals.

How to tackle job creation has become a sore point among the two sides.

"The bonding bill ... that's not a jobs bill," said Zellers, R-Maple Grove. Helping small businesses and getting "government off their back, that's a jobs bill."

In a jab at Republicans, Dayton's official website has a huge, ticking clock noting the duration of the session. It reads: "Number of days in session without the Legislature passing a jobs bill to put Minnesota back to work."

House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, shot back at Dayton: "You have been getting jobs bills, you just haven't recognized them, with tort reform, with education reform and with permitting reform."

The bonding proposal is creating division even among Republicans.

Moderates like Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, see practical value in borrowing money to maintain the state's infrastructure and political value in landing prized projects for home districts.

Others, like Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, remain dead set against the borrowing. Asked if he thought the state needed a bonding bill, Thompson didn't hesitate: "No."

The bonding bill is used, historically, to improve infrastructure, help local jurisdictions with projects like convention centers, and as a way to spur the economy. Even-numbered sessions typically have bonding as their primary objective, and with interest rates still at historic lows and the construction industry in the doldrums, passing up a bonding bill this session at the Capitol could carry some political risk.

"I am hopeful we will have one," Senjem said. "But you never say anything is for sure around here."

That angered DFLers, who say it could add tens of thousands of new jobs across the state.

"If we are not going to do a bonding bill, let's just go home," Bakk said.

Stadium stuck

The nearly $1 billion Minnesota Vikings stadium project also needs a Herculean lift to get into the win column.

The stadium proposal has passed out of just one House committee and is stuck in its first Senate panel, unable to get the votes to move along.

Last week, the powerful House Rules Committee convened early in the morning to grant the proposal a special waiver for missing a key deadline.

Vikings Vice President Lester Bagley, who has led the team's lobbying effort, sat silently in the back of the hearing room late last week holding a giant cup of Starbucks coffee. "I think there are a lot of good discussions and energy that is going to move our issue forward," Bagley said earlier. "There's good momentum for a Vikings stadium solution this session."

But unease over the project is tearing at Republicans' desire for lockstep unity.

Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, drew criticism from Vikings fans for withdrawing a proposal to allow electronic pulltabs, with the extra revenue going to charities and possibly for the state's nearly $400 million share of a new football stadium.

Rep. John Kriesel, the GOP sponsor of the same bill in the House, told Parry he thought the maneuver this late in the session seriously jeopardized the project. Kriesel became furious with Parry for sending an e-mail to a Vikings fan saying that the two legislators met to "clear up the confusion about the bill."

The Cottage Grove Republican said Parry's e-mail "was incredible, misleading and inaccurate," and still believes the senator's move has made the project more difficult.

State Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, said legislators from either party lack the stomach for a highly controversial stadium vote.

"It's pretty obvious it is a next-year agenda item. It is an election year, for God sake," she said. "If [Speaker] Kurt Zellers wanted to pass the stadium bill, he would have done it by now. He knos it."

Zellers, a five-term legislator, noted that the final weeks and days of a session can be wild and unpredictable, with initiatives that seemed dead suddenly re-emerging in the swirl of a final deal.

"Until the session is over," he said, "everything is always in play."

Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044

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