In a five-month legislative session whose outcome will much depend on the mood and mind-set of the new House Republican majority, last Tuesday may have been an important day. Or at least a revealing one.

Within the span of about 90 minutes, Capitol scribes were treated to the following episodes of Republicans in action:

• As a crowd at the St. Paul Armory swelled to upward of 1,000 disabled people and their caregivers, five GOP lawmakers appeared alongside a cluster of DFLers to show their support for a proposed 5 percent increase in state spending on home- and community-based services in 2016-17.

Four of them — including the new chair of the House Health and Human Services Finance committee, Rep. Matt Dean of Stillwater — helped rev up the crowd with promises of support for funding that would lead to higher pay for caregivers. Sen. David Senjem of Rochester asserted that the call for more spending on services that keep disabled people as independent as possible represents “the pulse of Minnesota.” The 5-percent bill’s two-year cost: $170 million.

• An hour later in the building next door, Dean appeared again, this time with two other House Republicans and few DFLers, to praise a batch of mental-health initiatives backed by the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and, in large part, by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

“There is bipartisan support, because mental health affects everyone,” said Sue Abderholden, NAMI’s stalwart voice at the Capitol. The two-year cost of Dayton’s package: $32 million.

• Just 15 minutes later, state Republican Chair and former Edina Rep. Keith Downey stepped before microphones to roll out a $150,000 multimedia ad campaign aimed at the Legislature with the theme “Give It Back.”

“It” would be the $1.9 billion surplus that’s been forecast to arrive in the state treasury by mid-2017. All of it, Downey said. The ad asserts that Minnesotans are overtaxed, and says that if the surplus were fully returned to its rightful owners, every Minnesotan would see a $350 refund.

He meant no rebuke of the Republicans who had called for more spending moments before, Downey soothed. Neither was he insisting that they enact a checks-in-the-mail giveback, akin to the one Gov. Jesse Ventura engineered 15 years ago — though that’s what his ad seems to say.

“Our purpose here today isn’t to tell others how to do their jobs. … I don’t speak for legislative leaders,” he said.

Neither was he speaking with them. No legislator joined him in the State Office Building’s briefing room.

Later Tuesday, a few GOP legislators allowed that they were puzzled by Downey’s decision to launch a six-figure ad campaign while the state party is trying to pay down a seven-figure debt. Perhaps they didn’t hear all that Downey said — or preferred to pretend that they didn’t.

Downey explained to reporters that beating the drum for a $1.9 billion state tax cut is popular with the people who write big checks to the GOP: “As we announced that and released that [ad campaign], actually our donation receipts have exceeded that [$150,000 total] by quite a bit. In fact, the campaign of educating the people of Minnesota … actually is a positive for our financial situation.”

Downey is a few weeks away from a GOP Central Committee vote on his bid for a second term. To date, he is unopposed. Still, he has good reason to cast himself as the true-believer spokesman for the conservative cause. If he can raise more dough in the process, all the better for him.

But it will be all the worse for legislative autonomy and for bipartisan compromise at the end of a session in which the Senate and the governor’s office are firmly in DFL hands. The ad’s tacit message won’t be a simple plea to “give it back.” It will be “give it back, or risk the wrath of the GOP money machine in 2016.”

Downey isn’t just throwing his own weight around the Legislature. He’s giving the GOP’s hard-right donors a timely opportunity to throw some of their own.

The guy on whom all that weight falls hardest is rookie House Speaker Kurt Daudt. Only once before in memory has a GOP party chair come to the Capitol to publicly tell legislators what to do, and that was in 2011, when the GOP last had a rookie speaker. Had a party chair made a similar appearance during the watch of eight-year Speaker Steve Sviggum, or had a DFL chair pulled such a stunt on legendary Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, they would have found themselves in a snowbank on the Capitol Mall — figuratively and maybe literally.

Daudt evidently doesn’t have the commanding presence to assert his autonomy — yet. But he has been impressive in his new role so far. He’s shown that he can both deliver partisan barbs and play bipartisan conciliator, and has exhibited a good instinct for when each of those skills is warranted. He’s the sort of promising newbie whom a party-building state chair should want to prop up, not push over.

The real measure of the new speaker lies just ahead. It’s budget-making time. Dayton’s supplemental budget will appear this week, to be followed next week by the rollout of House GOP budget targets.

When those numbers come, Downey’s campaign guarantees that the size of the House’s proffered tax cut will be the headline — and the size of the GOP’s proposed spending increases will be deemed a measure of Daudt’s independence and clout.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.