Minn. Legislature opens with pledges and a little pushback

New DFL leaders laid out agenda to start new era at State Capitol.

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Newly in charge of the Minnesota House, Speaker Paul Thissen on Tuesday pledged that DFLers' first initiatives will be to repay public schools, provide direct property-tax relief and boost money to state job-creation efforts.

"We want to govern well, and we want to fulfill the promises that we made on the campaign trail," said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

On the first day of the 2013 legislative session, DFLers who now control both chambers conveyed a dogged determination to leave two years of GOP control behind and embark on a new era in state government. Their new agenda is designed to appease economy-battered voters, but the proposals come with multimillion-dollar price tags and no clear way to pay for them. Already facing a $1.1 billion state budget shortfall, minority Republicans are girding for a rancorous fight over taxes and spending.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said he and Thissen have had good conversations about striking a more collegial tone and finding areas where the two parties can work together, but Daudt remains skeptical.

"I am waiting to see whether the actions match the words," said Daudt, R-Crown.

The first signs of the eventual clashes came when a partisan dustup over committee assignments encroached on a largely ceremonial first day usually filled with families and friendly backslapping. With children and loved ones filling the House chamber, Republicans briefly quarreled with DFLers over two GOP members not getting the committee assignments they wanted. At the same time, the state GOP sent out a news release questioning the selection of Rep. Jean Wagenius as House Agriculture Committee chairwoman, labeling the Minneapolis DFLer a "Mother Earth feminist."

Thissen brushed off the spurt of political intrigue. "We are going to have a lot of good debates on the House floor," he said.

Thissen plans to roll out the party's first legislative proposals in coming days.

House DFLers want to take a big bite out of the $1.1 billion owed to K-12 public schools, spend more to encourage the sale of Minnesota products outside the state and increase grants and loans for communities trying to lure businesses to their area.

"We dug ourselves a hole," Thissen said of the money borrowed from public schools. "One of the ways to get our budget back in order in a permanent way is to pay back that school shift."

Final transition

The Senate's first day focused more on the ceremonial and less on biting politics.

"Today we make our final transition from our divisive partisan politics to governing," Senate President Sandra Pappas said after her election.

American and Minnesota flags provided the perfect backdrop for incoming senators who wanted commemorative photos of the day. The candidates raised their hands for photographers in a Capitol meeting room as if swearing the oath of office -- although the real oath was administered later on the House and Senate floors.

Family and friends swarmed around them. Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, newly arrived from the House, and Sen. Jeff Hayden, both Minneapolis DFLers, posed proudly as the only two African-American senators. The Senate in its entire history has had only four African-American members, according to the Legislative Reference Library. Hayden, the deputy majority leader, is believed to be the first to hold a leadership position.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, brought his own family Bible and recruited 84-year-old former Chief Justice Sandy Keith to administer the oath. The biggest group portrait gathered around new Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, who will become the only Hmong-American member in the Legislature. "I'm new to politics, but I'm not new to helping people," Hawj said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said his goal is to hand off a fully balanced budget to the senators who will seek election in four years. Bakk, a former Taxes Committee chairman, said he wants to put a budget together "without accounting gimmicks, without borrowing."

He said DFL Gov Mark Dayton, who is recuperating from back surgery, called him Monday night to wish him good luck and to make clear that he is open to ideas for improving on the budget Dayton will introduce later this month. "He said, 'Tom, my budget's not perfect. There's a little something in there for everyone to hate,'" Bakk said.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the minority's role is to stand up for its view of the budget and other issues. "As a state, we don't always agree on every issue," Hann said. " And we think it's important that there be the robust debate."

Many of the dozens of first-term legislators were awed by their experience and the challenges that await.

"I tell you, I am very impressed," said new Republican Rep. Mark Uglem, a retired businessman and three-term mayor of Champlin. "I'm a little surprised, because I think the public has maybe a different viewpoint of the Legislature. I think there's a lot of very, very intelligent people on both sides of the aisle who are working very, very hard to get things done for the public."

Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report. baird.helgeson@startribune.com 651-925-5044 jim.ragsdale@startribune.com 651-925-5042

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  • Before he was sworn in on the Senate floor Tuesday, state Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, posed for a photo. Behind him was his wife, Anna.

  • Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, left, greeted new House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, after his election Tuesday.

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