Minnesota Senate Republicans have put up a united rhetorical wall against the tax and spending increases proposed by Gov. Tim Walz and the new DFL majority in the House.

But coming out of the Easter/Passover break, with a mere five weeks to the finish, state Sen. Paul Gazelka, the GOP majority leader, has a difficult path forward. Republican senators will make sure Gazelka upholds their small-government principles, of course. But eventually he’ll have to agree to something that the Democrats can live with.

A government shutdown, which would begin July 1 if Walz and the GOP-led Senate can’t agree on a budget, is not in anyone’s interest. But Republicans have traditionally fared badly in the public’s estimation after shutdowns.

“And it’s all complicated by, what’s that in 2020 again? Oh yeah, an election.”

That’s state Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the voluble, amiable chiropractor and father of six.

“It’s definitely the Rubik’s Cube situation we’re in,” he said.

Abeler is a moderate Republican who served for more than a decade in the House before joining the Senate in 2016. Unlike some others with the maverick moniker, he prides himself on actually putting together deals. And he may wind up in the middle of the drama come May, when the deal needs to be cut.

“We’ve taken the position that there’s enough money,” Abeler said of his Republican colleagues. “But I don’t think there is.”

He’s especially concerned about the future of health care programs if a 2% tax on health care expires as scheduled at the end of the year. He is co-author of a bipartisan proposal to tax insurance claims paid by health plans and third-party administrators to replace the health care tax.

Abeler raised an intriguing prospect: If the conservative wing of the caucus won’t come along on his proposal, and others like it required to compromise with Walz and the House, they’ll go searching for DFL votes in the Senate.

Abeler wryly tipped his cap to the DFL minority leader, state Sen. Tom Bakk, long a champion of the Iron Range.

“If there’s a deal he helps on, expect some new museums on the Iron Range. Nothing for nothing.”

But Abeler expects less bend when it comes to the Democrats’ proposed 20-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax. When he talks to constituents, he’s finding less consensus on a gas tax increase than in 2008, when he broke with his party and voted to override then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax increase.

He welcomed any Walz effort to turn the gas tax into a 2020 issue. “It would be a gift.”

Not that Abeler ever thinks about politics.

“I would hope people would care enough about Minnesota that when a reasonable proposal comes through they would get on board and support it; that we’re statesmen first and politicians second,” he said.

He added: “That remains to be seen.”


J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com