So far this session, Gov. Mark Dayton has steadfastly beat the drum for his legislative program to give a boost to the state’s job market: a bonding bill, a Vikings stadium and a jobs tax credit. The Republican majorities in the House and Senate, meanwhile, have pushed through committee numerous proposals that they contend will reduce the tax and regulatory burden on business and make government less costly and more efficient.
But while both sides have staked out their positions, it’s far from certain whether either will get much of what it wants.
Compared with the recent past, this year is distinctive in two regards: Lawmakers, for once, are not being forced into action to repair a leak in the general fund budget. And they are awaiting the release of redistricting maps that will bestow new territories and constituents upon incumbent legislators, and in some cases pit two sitting members against each other.
“Every time the Legislature is meeting in a redistricting year,” said Bill Schreiber, a lobbyist and former GOP legislator, “it brings a degree of lost confidence. There’s less certainty. Some districts will become bigger and some will get smaller.” Schreiber noted that much of the uncertainty revolves around the demographics and politics of the remade districts: Lawmakers don’t really know whether the stances that always played well back home will help or hinder them in the new landscape.
Roger Moe, a DFL lobbyist who served as Senate majority leader for many years, said he isn’t expecting to see much action beyond a bonding bill.
“Not a lot is going to happen,” he said. “There will be new districts to which they will want to head home.”
All the uncertainty and seeming lack of focus in the session so far suggest at least three possible scenarios for the 2012 session endgame:
• DFL and GOP lawmakers could reach a negotiated global deal in which Dayton gets a bonding bill with some of his top projects and legislative Republicans get the governor to sign some of their “Reform 2.0” policy bills.
• Republicans might choose to serve up a number of base-pleasing bills for vetoes before taking to the stump to campaign against the Party of Dayton.
• Or GOP lawmakers could build their fall campaign around the passage of a slate of conservative constitutional amendments for November’s ballot.
Bonding pressure in both parties
Even though the relationship between Dayton and legislative Republicans has been tense so far this session, the bonding bill is coveted by members of both parties. Lawmakers in all parts of the state have bonding projects like public university buildings and wastewater treatment plants that they want to see built or renovated.
The GOP Capital Investment chairmen, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, have suggested that any bonding bill will be far smaller than Dayton’s proposal. The Republicans’ priorities, like changing teacher seniority practices or loosening environmental permitting, could get the ear of Dayton if they warm up to a bonding bill that’s closer to Dayton’s dollar figure.
But there are conservative Republicans who will object to the increase in state spending. That means it will take extensive DFL support to pass a bill to Dayton. Howes said he expects a bonding bill will be conferenced and subjected to a final vote in the waning days of the session.
“If it’s in the final five days,” Howes said, “I don’t see the point of bringing it up again if it fails.” Howes’ prediction assumes that all sides negotiate in earnest and reach an agreement before final votes are taken.
A veto-laden spring?
The second scenario, in which the session collapses under a heap of vetoes, could happen if Republicans and DFLers succumb to disagreements and choose to play the blame game in the campaign. The partisan tone of the session so far creates the possibility that the two sides will leave St. Paul with very little besides recriminations.
“I think the governor is up to 27 bill vetoes in his first year and one month of his term,” one lobbyist said. “A lot of people I talk to think he’ll have another 20 or 30 vetoes before this [session] is all said and done.”
Indeed, the political climate has worsened since a year ago, when Dayton and Republicans in the Legislature made significant progress early in the session on priority issues for business interests. This year has been defined instead by vitriol.
Senate Republicans denied former Sen. Ellen Anderson’s confirmation as Dayton’s appointed chairwoman of the Public Utilities Commission. Dayton issued a verbal lashing in response, fuming that the Republicans were “unfit to govern.” Then Republicans passed four marquee tort reform bills. Like last year’s early legislation dealing with alternative teacher licensure and environmental permitting, the four tort bills were backed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and some of them had support from reliably business-friendly DFLers. But Dayton rejected all four bills in a testy veto letter that seemed to leave little room for their revival in any subsequent negotiations.
If the rest of the GOP’s priority bills face the same fate as tort reform, Republican candidates will spend the summer and fall arguing that their best efforts were shot down by a hostile governor. DFL legislative candidates, conversely, will argue that Republicans presided over a do-nothing session and were once again unwilling to compromise with Dayton.
In a political environment of enmity rather than amity, the other bills Republicans are teeing up — such as a second round of environmental permit streamlining and changes to teacher seniority policy — could become casualties of a do-nothing session. And with nothing to offer Republicans, Dayton’s priorities would languish as well.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the Republicans’ hostility to the governor suggests that hopes for a productive session could be fading.
“The way the Republicans have proceeded so far,” Thissen said, “it doesn’t appear they want to engage the governor in coming up with compromises on the bills they’re sending through. If that continues, it doesn’t bode well for the session end.”
The constitutional amendment route
Republicans could choose to pursue their policy agenda mainly through constitutional amendments, since amendments passed by the Legislature go straight to the general election ballot without a gubernatorial signature. Voters are already faced with an amendment proposal asking if marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman. Another amendment that would require Minnesota voters provide photo ID at the polls is moving through the Legislature, and most observers believe it will pass both chambers easily.
Beyond that, the picture grows murkier. The most controversial of the numerous amendment bills waiting in the wings is a so-called right-to-work measure that would outlaw the requirement that employees in union shops join and pay dues to a union. But that bill, carried by Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, and Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, reportedly faces opposition from up to a dozen House Republicans, and House leaders are also said to be wary of the bill’s potential to mobilize more foes than friends.
Other amendment proposals include limits on the size of the state budget, though the House and Senate are split over their preferred means. The House proposal focuses on the revenue side of the equation and would require legislative supermajorities to pass tax increases. In the Senate, by contrast, Deputy Majority Leader Julianne Ortman has been a vocal proponent of amending the Constitution to limit the growth of total state spending from one budget cycle to the next.