Somewhere around 5,000 state legislators and legislative staffers from around the United States have gathered in Minneapolis this week to talk policy and politics.
The National Conference of State Legislatures kicked off its 40th annual "Legislative Summit" on Tuesday at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It's by far the largest nationwide organization representing state lawmakers from all 50 states.
A number of prominent Minnesota legislators from both parties are hosting events and participating in discussions at the four-day meeting, including state Senate president Sandy Pappas, House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to offer welcoming remarks at a general assembly meeting on Wednesday morning.
Hundreds of sessions will cover a wide range of policy concerns and political issues. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is scheduled to join Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain, to discuss an initiative they're leading to reduce human trafficking in the U.S.
Other speakers include retired Gen. Wesley Clark, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and national political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of the bestselling books "Game Change" and "Double Down."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Glenn Howatt
As we reported in Monday's newspaper, Democratic areas of the state have cast more absentee ballots than Republican areas.
"Nearly 40 percent of the already accepted absentee ballots came from DFL bastions and only 28 percent have come from GOP areas, according to a Star Tribune analysis of early ballots accepted by election officials as of Wednesday. Slightly more voters live in those GOP areas than in the DFL ones," we wrote.
For a deeper look at the absentee ballot tranmitted and returned numbers, check out the charts below, which break down the numbers as of Wednesday morning from the state's 87 counties, the state's 134 Minnesota House Districts and the U.S. House Districts.
The most populous counties have returned the most ballots by sheer numbers. Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota, Washington and St. Louis are in the top five spots. Hennepin also has several heated legislative primaries (see chart below) that appear to have increased absentee ballot numbers.
BY MINNESOTA HOUSE DISTRICT
By House District, which have equal population, one district stands out in terms of absentee ballot numbers. House District 60B, in the heart of Minneapolis, features a heated Democratic race between DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn and DFL school board member Mohamud Noor. That district also features a lower profile primary race among Republicans.
BY U.S. HOUSE DISTRICT
Like Minnesota House Districts, Congressional Districts all have the same population. But the numbers of absentee ballots requested and accepted from the districts show significant differences.
Republican candidate for governor Marty Seifert suggested Friday that a portion of Minnesota's budget reserves, typically accumulated to protect against economic downturns, should be used to boost state spending on road construction.
Seifert held a Capitol press conference to lay out what he called "Priorities for Minnesota Families." He said as governor, he would push the Legislature to shield Minnesota senior citizens from paying social security taxes on earned benefits; and seek an infusion of state money to build new roads and repair crumbling ones.
Earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers increased the budget reserve to $811 million. Seifert said $500 million should suffice, and that the rest could be spent on roads. Seifert said he'd also seek to cancel planned light rail construction, and trim non-construction spending at the Department of Transportation, to find more money for roads. He said he would not support a gas tax increase or other new revenue streams for transportation.
Seifert, a former House minority leader from Marshall, is one of four contenders in Tuesday's GOP primary for governor. The winner will take on Dayton in November.
As construction workers milled at the site of a new state Senate office building by the Capitol, GOP candidate for governor Jeff Johnson held a press conference off to the side to renew his frequent criticism of the project.
Johnson and three other Republicans are in the final sprint toward Tuesday's primary election, where the party will pick its opponent for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Around the same time Johnson criticized the office building as wasteful and tried to link it to Dayton, he drew a rebuke over taxes from GOP opponent Kurt Zellers.
"Jeff Johnson is carrying the same tired ideas that Mark Dayton tried to force on Minnesotans just last year," read a press release from Zellers, the former House speaker. It's a reference to a May 2013 interview in MinnPost where Johnson expressed support for lowering the overall sales tax rate but shrinking the number of products and services exempt from it. That's similar to a tax reform proposal from Dayton in early 2013 that he later abandoned.
Johnson cited his strong rating from the Minnesota Taxpayers League and his record on the Hennepin County Board as evidence for his opposition to tax increases. He said he would seek to cut taxes as governor, and would veto any tax increase from the Legislature.
"Kurt's probably recognized that he's a ways behind and needs to go on the attack," said Johnson, whose endorsement from the state GOP has contributed to a view among many Republicans that he has a slight edge heading toward Tuesday's vote. The other two contenders are Scott Honour, a businessman and political newcomer, and Marty Seifert, the former House minority leader.
Johnson said he preferred to focus his criticism on Dayton, not fellow Republicans. It was Johnson's second press conference at the site of the new Capitol office building in less than six weeks. He called the project, being built with $77 million in taxpayer funds, "symbolic of Dayton's priorities."
The Minnesota DFL noted that several prominent Republican lawmakers, Sen. Dave Senjem and Rep. Matt Dean, were involved in the official process around moving the project forward, and voted in favor of hiring an architect and construction company.
Dean, in response to the DFL criticism, said while he did serve on the appointed panel that signed off on hiring an architect and contractor, that he has repeatedly stated his larger opposition to proceeding with the building . He said he didn't feel the state should specifically penalize architects or contractors for a project that had already been approved.
Johnson said if he were to become governor, he would seek to cancel construction if it's not too far along. If the state has already invested tens of millions, he said, he would try to re-purpose the building for some other state use besides the Senate.
The Honour campaign also took its turn criticizing the office building. The campaign released a video of his running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley, holding up a series of signs mocking the project.
Minnesota's Management and Budget office announced Tuesday that it completed a $85.4 million bond sale to fund construction of a new office building for state senators next to the Capitol.
The state Department of Administration announced shortly after that preliminary work would start at the site on Wednesday. That could include asphalt, tree and curb removal; installation of barriers, fences and partitions; and heavy equipment delivery.
Plans call for the building to be ready for senators to move in prior to the 2016 legislative session. Planners of the roughly $90 million project, to which taxpayers are contributing about $77 million, say it will both ease crowding concerns during the ongoing, massive renovation of the Capitol building; and provide needed long-term space for state senators and their employees.
The project has become a frequent target of criticism by Republican politicians, who have called it unneeded, and tried to wield it politically against Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative Democrats.