State Sen. Dan Sparks of Austin, the only DFLer to join Senate Republicans in passing a measure to prohibit Minnesota cities from setting their own workplace rules, has a history of bucking his party on high-profile votes.

Sparks, a member of the Senate since 2002, represents a southern Minnesota district that has been trending Republican. He has long been among the DFL senators most likely to cross party lines to vote with Republicans. More than once, Sparks has been the only DFLer to join Republicans on a range of votes, as in 2015 when every DFL senator save Sparks voted to increase Minnesota’s gas tax (the proposal died in the House). In 2014, he was one of just three DFL senators to buck the party and vote against a measure to crack down on bullying in public schools.

In 2013, Sparks was again one of only three DFL senators to vote against legalizing gay marriage. At the time, Sparks told the Star Tribune he spent “many sleepless nights” over the issue but that it reflected strong opposition to gay marriage in his southern Minnesota Senate district. Back in 2007, he was the only DFLer to split from his party on a minimum-wage increase initiative.

Sparks’ vote on Thursday was for a bill that would repeal new paid sick-leave ordinances passed last year in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and block all cities from passing workplace benefit mandates or raising the minimum wage. Sparks, through a Senate DFL spokeswoman, declined to comment on his vote.

The Republican-controlled House earlier passed a similar workplace rules ordinance, and the two bills will now be merged into a single proposal to be forwarded to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Republican lawmakers who spoke in favor of the plans said they were an attempt to avoid what they called a patchwork of regulations that would burden businesses.

DFLers said Republicans were aiming to strip local control from cities that had set policies meant to help with the specific needs of their communities.

This year, Sparks was one of the authors on another Senate measure related to local ordinances: a proposal to block cities from banning plastic bags. (Minneapolis approved a plastic-bag ban last year, which is set to go into effect June 1, but would be repealed if the bill becomes law.) The plastic-bag measure is now part of three separate budget bills moving through the Legislature.

Sparks, 49, represents Mower and Freeborn counties in the Legislature. Both of those counties, especially Mower, were once seen as friendly turf for DFLers, but voters there have been shifting right. Last year, President Donald Trump won Freeborn County with 55 percent of the vote and Mower County by just over 50 percent. At the same time, Sparks was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote — considerably less than his 68 percent winning margin the previous time he ran, in 2012.

The House DFLer who represents the Mower County half of Sparks’ district, Rep. Jeanne Poppe of Austin, was one of just two DFL representatives who voted in favor of the measure to constrict local authority on workplace standards. The other was Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona. Sparks, Poppe and Pelowski are among a shrinking list of DFL lawmakers who represent greater Minnesota districts, as political power in the state is increasingly divided between DFLers in the Twin Cities and Republicans in the rest of the state.

Poppe, in her seventh term in the House, said she’s concerned that higher wages and benefit mandates in nearby cities could hurt smaller towns that can’t compete. She said those communities already struggle to keep workers for in-demand jobs like nursing home care staff. Poppe said she’s supportive of businesses and workers’ advocates working together on statewide policies on issues like minimum wage and sick leave.

“My vote isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be doing some of these things, but to say the conversation should be at the state [level],” she said.

Pelowski, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1986, said he voted in favor of the bill because he believes shifting local regulations could hurt communities like Winona. If Rochester approved higher wages and mandated benefits, for example, he said it could drain workers from his community. And after years of teaching American government, Pelowski said he’s clear in his understanding that state government has authority over smaller governments.

“I didn’t teach Republican government or Democratic government or Green Party government,” he said. “I’m not going to say as a teacher I taught American government and when I go up to the Capitol be a DFL hack. That’s not going to happen.”

 

Star Tribune staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this story.