Minnesota’s legislative session begins Tuesday in the newly reopened and freshly refurbished State Capitol, but familiar surroundings are the only certainty awaiting Gov. Mark Dayton and 201 lawmakers as they prepare for multibillion-dollar decisions about taxpayer money at a volatile time in U.S. politics.
Given the lack of clarity about the incoming Trump administration’s priorities and strategies, Minnesota’s political leaders can only speculate about the local implications of the total Republican rule at the federal level. Decisions in Washington on health insurance, transportation and infrastructure spending, immigration policy and other far-reaching issues will deeply influence debates in St. Paul, where a DFL governor and Republican-controlled House and Senate must agree on at least one thing: two years of state spending in excess of $40 billion.
“The people of Minnesota sent all of us to St. Paul, and we have different views on what’s best for the state, on spending priorities and other policies, and it’s unrealistic to think we’re not going to have significant disagreements,” Dayton said. “I hope we can resolve those constructively by the end of the session.”
Fresh rancor between Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt threatens to spill into the new session. Two years ago, both men spoke often of their good relationship despite party differences. Recent weeks have brought several public confrontations and a series of bitter jabs.
The newest top player, incoming Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, may find himself the point man in trying to keep such acrimony from permeating the legislative process.
“I think we ought to lower the tone,” Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said at a media forum in December. “Let’s lower the tone a little bit and figure out how we can actually work on some of these things that we’re all talking about.”
Chief among those will be efforts to fix the state’s struggling health insurance system, which in turn will be heavily influenced by the push in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Thousands of Minnesotans whose premiums are poised to shoot up, and hundreds of thousands in the state who have gained coverage under the seven-year-old federal law, have much on the line.
President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to pump billions into rebuilding America’s aging infrastructure could jump-start a long-stalled debate in St. Paul over how to raise more money to rebuild Minnesota roads and other public assets. And the immigration crackdown Trump has promised could roil some Minnesota cities and towns, forcing local elected officials to react.
For the new Republican majority, the session is a chance to pass legislation that shows Minnesotans the party’s vision for the state; expect some kind of hefty tax-cut proposal to be the centerpiece of their agenda. For Dayton, heading into his final two years in elected office, the focus may be less on achieving new goals and more on defending his accomplishments of the last six years. He’s unlikely to be shy about exercising his veto power.
The resulting clash will also set the stage for Minnesota’s next governor’s race, in 2018. Leading participants in the legislative process are considering their own gubernatorial bids, including Daudt and DFL Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, one of Dayton’s closest allies and advisers.
Daudt, R-Crown, vowed recently that this year’s session would end in a transparent and orderly fashion. That would be a break from the recent past, where different iterations of divided government regularly ended in debacle. Major spending bills were stalled, or passed with little time for legislators to actually review them; decisions about billions in spending were hashed out in private meetings among a few top players; and, twice in less than a decade’s time, the state government shut down, putting Minnesota’s political dysfunction on national display.
“We need to do things differently,” Daudt said. “We’re not going to bunch up all the business at the end of the legislative session. People don’t like that.”