Gov.-elect Tim Walz brings an energetic style and an ambitious agenda to the State Capitol come January, and his success hinges on whether the vigorous approach and penchant for pragmatism he brought to the campaign trail can win over the Republican lawmakers whose votes he needs.
Fresh from his sweeping victory in the governor’s race, Walz in the coming weeks will assemble an administration and craft an agenda for the upcoming legislative session that attempts to make good on far-reaching campaign promises.
From spending increases for schools, broader access to publicly funded health insurance, a gas tax increase for road improvements, new limits on gun sales and even sleeper issues like marijuana legalization, Walz and a new Democratic majority in the state House will be looking to deliver on the priorities of the voters and interest groups that carried them to victory.
Many of those debates will get folded into the main order of business for Walz and the new Legislature in 2019: passing a two-year budget for state government that will surpass $45 billion. Also on Walz’s to-do list: fixing some high-profile messes that cropped up under his Democratic soon-to-be predecessor Gov. Mark Dayton, like the still-troubled driver’s license and registration system, and a recent data breach at the Department of Human Services.
“People want government to function. They want it to deal with the things that impact their daily lives,” Walz said as he announced the team responsible for plotting his transition and assembling his legislative strategy. “And they’re done with the drama.”
Indeed, recent legislative sessions have been characterized by bitter standoffs between Dayton and Republican legislative leaders — fights that have resulted in frequent Dayton vetoes of major legislation, gridlock and politically charged court battles.
“We’re still divided government,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, who will lead the Republican caucus, which has a narrow 34-33 majority. They will try to stop major Democratic goals but must also look ahead to what could be a perilous election for suburban GOP senators in 2020.
Gazelka is known for his collegiality, but he drew a red line on proposals Democrats have pushed before and that Walz and Democratic candidates for the Legislature talked about on the campaign trail — like the gas tax increase for roads or allowing all Minnesotans to buy public health insurance.
“The issues that we’re divided on likely don’t happen,” Gazelka said.
In Walz, Republicans will be jousting with someone who won more votes than any other governor in Minnesota history. He also brings a very different approach than his predecessor. Although Walz and Dayton share many of the same policy ideas, people who know them both expect a different style.
“Dayton didn’t demonstrate a great love for the Legislature,” said Brian Rice, a longtime Democratic lobbyist at the Legislature. “I think Walz, coming from a legislative background, is going to have a different perspective,” he said, in reference to Walz’s 12 years representing southern Minnesota in Congress.
Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan spent three years in the Minnesota House, giving her relationships the Walz administration can turn to for help at the Legislature.
Walz won’t be the only source of new Democratic energy at the statehouse. Fueled by a wave of suburban pickups, the party won 18 House seats from Republicans and seized the majority in that chamber, its first in four years.
The next House Speaker, Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, reiterated a focus on governing.
“What people are interested in is people who separate the serving from the getting elected,” Hortman said. “It shouldn’t be a perpetual campaign.”
Hortman said she sees potential for at least a handful of quick bipartisan victories. That could include new money for government to fight the opioid epidemic, paid for in part by the pharmaceutical industry; tighter regulations on nursing homes after the Star Tribune reported on thousands of overlooked cases of elder abuse; and the alignment of the state’s tax code with its federal counterpart, simplifying taxes for Minnesota families and businesses.
Moving to clean up the beleaguered Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS) and preventing more state government data breaches will be an early emphasis, according to Walz.
“You’ll see a focus on the technology piece,” he said in an interview. As the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Walz worked on a complex project to merge the electronic health systems of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense.
“Switching from legacy computer systems is a nightmare, and MNLARS could be just the first one,” Walz warned.
Carrie Lucking, who was Walz’s campaign manager, said his style is to delegate rather than to micromanage. He sets high expectations and is impatient with excuses when he doesn’t see results, she said.
As for relations with the Legislature, Walz will listen to Republicans, Lucking said.
“There were times in the campaign when we were frustrated because he wanted us to meet with people we knew he disagreed with,” she said.
Walz said his time in Congress taught him the importance of relationships — and how dysfunctional Congress became once there were none.
He hopes to start a bipartisan running club like he organized in Washington, and wants to get to know lawmakers and their children.
“It’s more difficult to demonize people when you spend time with their children,” he said.
Walz, who was a teacher and soldier before politics, and his wife, Gwen, also an educator, plan on moving their 12-year old son to the governor’s residence in St. Paul. Their 17-year old daughter is a senior at Mankato West High School.
The transfer of power at the Capitol gives both sides a chance to reset relationships.
Given Republican opposition, however, several high-profile Democratic proposals — the gas tax for roads, a big spending boost for schools, a public health insurance option — will be more difficult to accomplish.
To that end, Walz will also work an outside game, rallying support for his proposals around the state.
Walz described his planned travel schedule this way: “Relentless.”
As a congressman, he said, he loved hearing constituents say: “It seems like you’re everywhere.”
J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042