Session over, legislators hit campaign trail

Stark contrasts can be expected to sharpen along the road to elections.

The messy, tense, partisan legislative session in their rearview, lawmakers are quickly turning their sights on their campaigns to return for more next year.

The final gavel had barely come down before the DFL-supporting Alliance for a Better Minnesota rolled out its campaign for "A Better Legislature." Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk closed the session by telling colleagues that the state was saved from a "do-nothing session" by its Democratic minorities. House Speaker Kurt Zellers says Republican principles will bring them victory in November and is already seeking campaign cash.

The intense, multimillion-dollar campaign for control of the Legislature is on.

"I expect the campaign to be much more visible than Minnesotans have seen in the past," said Carrie Lucking, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Minnesota.

If Democrats wrest control of the Legislature, they'll aim squarely at raising taxes on the wealthy as a way to help plug the state's perpetual money gap and fund schools, health care and services for the poor. Should Republicans retain control, the state could see another epic clash between a GOP legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on state spending, union power and government services.

The coming election will see thousands of volunteers and the state's biggest interest groups plying Minnesotans at every turn.

"People should expect public officials to be working hard," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.

That work may be needed. The legislature is starkly unpopular with Minnesotans according to opinion polls, and that may bode ill for incumbents. Nearly 20 percent of lawmakers have gotten the message and decided not to run again -- some because of what they see as the increasing toxicity of Capitol politics.

Conservative campaign

For a group of Republicans, the road ahead could be driven by more conservative members.

"The public will have to convey to folks that we meant it in 2010, and we want things to be done differently," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville. He and a group of Republican senators openly attacked GOP leadership for failing to pass a "right to work" constitutional amendment, while allowing the Minnesota Vikings stadium and a sizeable borrowing bill to move forward.

But the Republican leaders say that they delivered on their promises.

Zellers, the Maple Grove Republican who runs the House, said that even with a 2011 state government shutdown, Republicans fended off higher taxes and stood fast on principles that he says will carry them to victory in November.

"In just over a year our state has gone from red to black," Zellers said at the session's conclusion. "We turned a $6.2 billion deficit to a $1.2 billion surplus by supporting a strong private-sector economy, defeating job-killing tax increases and reducing projected state spending to stop the unchecked growth of government."

Dayton, of course, also takes credit for the state's fiscal turn-around, but notes that the state owes K-12 schools $2.4 billion that it forcibly borrowed to make ends meet and faces a projected deficit of $1 billion in the coming biennium.

Republicans did push through constitutional amendment ballot questions on photo IDs and banning gay marriage. They said they tried to enact reforms in education, state spending and union power, but that Dayton vetoed their bills.

DFL says new maps give hope

Democrats see reasons for hope in the coming elections. They say new legislative maps give them an edge and that the session's results helped define their message.

Bakk, leader of the Senate Democrats, told colleagues that "If Democrats had not stood up this legislative session and led, you would have presided over the biggest do-nothing session this state has ever seen."

He noted that it was Democrats -- not the ruling Republicans -- who put up the majority of votes on the Vikings stadium and on a nearly $500 million bonding bill that Dayton signed Friday.

Republicans like Zellers, who voted against the stadium and who vigorously opposed a bigger bonding bill, don't see that as much to brag about.

The end of the session left Dayton pining for more productivity.

"We've seen two years of divided government," Dayton said, "and it hasn't been productive from my standpoint."

Staff writers Jennifer Brooks and Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb

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