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Session ’13 politics: Let the games begin

Paul Demko and Mike Mullen//December 19, 2012

Session ’13 politics: Let the games begin

Paul Demko and Mike Mullen//December 19, 2012

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, left, and House Speaker Paul Thissen, right, have been cautious in laying out their itinerary for the session. Meanwhile, one-party rule may tempt committee chairs to deal directly with Gov. Mark Dayton, center, if they’re not seeing their agenda addressed through the caucus. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Single-party control raises the stakes for DFLers

The last time DFLers controlled all the levers of power at the Capitol, during the 1989-90 legislative session, Duane Benson was the Republican Senate minority leader. Benson recalls making a floor speech at the time comparing the dynamic to a basketball contest between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

“You guys are the Globetrotters and we’re the Generals,” Benson recalled saying. “We know you’re going to win. Our job is to make it entertaining.”

When Republicans return to the Capitol in January, they will once again be reduced to serving as a legislative sideshow. With DFLers in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, they don’t need any Republican votes to pursue the bulk of their agenda (the most important exception being a bonding bill).

But Benson sees a notable difference between the looming session and the last episode of one-party rule at the Capitol: a lack of legislative graybeards among the caucus leaders. “The dynamic is totally different,” Benson said. “I think the predictability is much less and the opportunities are much more for everybody. That place is a relationship business. They don’t know the relationships right now.”

Former GOP House Minority Leader Marty Seifert points out that only one Republican legislator — Sen. Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, who was in the House at the time — remains in the Legislature from the 1989-90 session. “I think it’s going to be extremely unusual, because there’s no person in the House of Representatives on the Republican side who has served in this situation,” Seifert said. “So they don’t know really what they’re getting into, because there’s not one person left who’s been in it.”

At least one aspect of the session will be painfully familiar: The state faces a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. While the shortfall is less daunting than in other recent budget cycles, it will still pose challenges for DFLers in finding the money to pay for their legislative priorities.

Everyone at the Capitol realizes that tax increases will be on the agenda. Increasing the share of taxes paid by the wealthy has been a linchpin of Gov. Mark Dayton’s budgeting philosophy, and DFL legislative leaders acknowledge that more revenue will be an important piece in solving the state’s chronic budget deficits. “I do think there’s a clear understanding that there’s going to be some tax increases that haven’t happened for a long time,” said Ted Grindal, a veteran DFL lobbyist. “It’s a really fascinating opportunity for the governor and the Democrats in the Legislature to kind of put their stamp on what they think is the right sort of tax plan.”

But beyond those broad parameters, the outline of the looming session is difficult to gauge. Some of the questions that are likely to flare during the coming months:

Can DFLers stay largely unified on their legislative agenda? Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen have been extremely cautious in laying out their itinerary for the session, emphasizing that solving the state’s chronic budget woes will be the predominant focus. Bakk went so far as to declare policy issues off the agenda in a press conference immediately after Election Day. But that’s probably not realistic, and legislative distractions are certain to surface.

Grindal believes that leadership has made it clear to rank-and-file legislators that they need to proceed cautiously on introducing bills, especially with regard to tax policy. “Does that mean people won’t do it? I think that’s a really hard thing to enforce,” Grindal said. “You can’t stop a legislator from introducing a bill.”

An early test will come during the period prior to the budget forecast. Legislators will have nearly two months at the Capitol to cool their heels while waiting for the exact figures they’ll use to craft their budget for the biennium. This void could be filled by legislators trying to push their pet issues onto the agenda. “You gather 201 people together in a building and say don’t do anything for two months?” asked Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “That’s not a good scenario.”

How will DFLers deal with pent-up spending demand? Chronic budget deficits have resulted not only in gridlock at the Capitol, but years of pent-up demand for funding priorities. Every interest group prowling the Capitol corridors will likely be looking to the new DFL majorities to come through with additional cash. Nursing homes, for instance, after years of flat reimbursement rates, are looking for a 5 percent boost. “When you suggest something, you better have a way to fund it,” said Bernie Hesse, a lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189, which represents nursing home workers. “That’s what we’re going to have to figure out.”

The judiciary — most notably the public defender system — is another area that’s been under significant fiscal stress for a long time. Although the court system was one of the few areas to receive a funding boost in the current biennium, there will undoubtedly be intense pressure to funnel further resources toward it.

“I think the pent-up demand is huge, and the ability to fill it isn’t there,” Benson said. “I think [what] is going to be the hardest for the leadership to control is just appetites.”
Will committee chairs circumvent leadership and deal directly with Dayton? Some Capitol observers believe one-party control will lessen the authority of legislative leadership in both chambers. With a friendly face in the governor’s office, committee chairs may be tempted to deal directly with Dayton if they’re not seeing their agenda addressed through the caucus. As one DFL legislator puts it: “Once the wagons aren’t circled anymore, there’s less need for wagonmasters.”

Dayton has shown a propensity to stray outside the normal avenues of caucus communication in the past. During the 2011 budget showdown, he met with freshman GOP Sen. John Howe, of Red Wing, to discuss the possibility of tax expenditures as a potential avenue for compromise. And it was Dayton’s meeting with House Capital Investment Chair Larry Howes, of Walker, about a bonding bill that ultimately set in motion the budgetary discussions that ended the three-week state government shutdown in 2011.

But Grindal argues that breaking protocol would come at too great a price in terms of having an effective working relationship with caucus leaders. “I don’t think they’re going to risk the necessity of working closely together for doing kind of an end-run strategy,” he said. “Will some chair of a committee or author of a bill attempt that? I think that’s certainly possible. I think you do that, though, with some peril.”

Will there be an aggressive push to legalize gay marriage? As gay marriage advocates see it, the defeat of a constitutional ban on gay marriage was the end of a long campaign — and the beginning of another. Seeking to keep up the movement’s momentum, activists held a public forum several weeks after Election Day to talk about organizing constituent pressure to force the issue for reluctant DFL legislators.

If that’s the plan, those advocates might want to start by making a road trip to Cook, Bakk’s hometown. Since election night, he has consistently avoided taking a position on the gay marriage issue, saying only that the state should have a “conversation” about the matter. Seifert thinks Bakk’s lack of enthusiasm for social policy issues makes him an outlier within his own caucus.

“[Bakk] actually clashes with a majority of the Democrats in the Legislature,” Seifert said. Bakk’s leadership counterpart in the other chamber, incoming House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, has so far exhibited a similar unwillingness to embrace the issue.
But if DFL leaders are hesitant to take on the thorny social issue, they now have one additional argument on behalf of delaying legislative action on gay marriage in 2013.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up two challenges to U.S. gay marriage laws. One of those cases, a challenge to California’s Proposition 8 ban of gay marriage, is seen as an opportunity for a landmark ruling that could legalize gay marriage throughout the United States. At a legislative preview event in early December, both Thissen and Bakk made reference to the court’s decision to take up the Prop 8 case.

“[Gay marriage] may well get resolved by the Supreme Court before this term is over,” Bakk said.
That the court’s ruling would affect Minnesota law is possible but highly improbable, according to University of Minnesota Law School professor Dale Carpenter, who served as treasurer on the pro-gay marriage, anti-amendment group Minnesotans United for All Families. As Carpenter sees it, the Supreme Court can decide to view the case through a variety of legal lenses. At its broadest, the court can say Proposition 8, and any similar ban, is unconstitutional, thereby legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country. More likely by far, Carpenter said, is a narrow ruling that addresses only the state of California.

“If [the Legislature] decides it doesn’t want to have gay marriage, that’s fine,” Carpenter said. “But to put this issue off, to pass the buck to the Supreme Court, would be an evasion — and, really, a dishonest one.”

Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, is also opposed to waiting out the high court’s decision. Allen, who will serve as vice chair on the House Civil Law Committee, said she, too, doubts that the court’s ruling will affect Minnesota in any way. Though she isn’t positive that a marriage bill would make its way through the Legislature this session, Allen at least wants the “conversation” to start now.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to wait,” Allen said. “It has to start at some point, and I don’t think you can say, ‘the right time is next year.’”

How deep will tensions run between urban liberals and Iron Rangers? One potential regional fault line within the DFL lies in the differing priorities of metro-area Democrats and their Iron Range counterparts. Though they agree on most issues, the two groups are occasionally drawn into a tug-of-war on major topics like mining, environmental policy and education financing.

Partly for that reason, a group of Iron Range legislators led by Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township has been meeting in the run-up to the session to set regional priorities. The sub-caucus “dates back many years,” according to former Range lawmaker and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich. Sertich is aware of similar coordinated efforts in other pockets of the state, but said Rangers have a well-earned reputation for working together.

“Over the years, people have come to understand that, and learn that Range politicians tend to work very well with each other, and come together for common purposes,” said Sertich, who is now commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

This year, Iron Range DFLers made a concentrated effort to spread out across various committees in order to give the region a potentially widespread reach on legislation, according to freshman Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia. Pointing to Anzelc’s presence on the Education Finance Committee and the appointment of Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, to the Capital Investment Committee, Metsa expressed confidence that the region’s interests would get a fair hearing during the session.

“On the House side, I’d say we’re pretty happy,” Metsa said. “At least, I’m looking at it like we got a pretty good spread over a lot of different committees.”

And in the Senate? Few are worried that Bakk, an Iron Range stalwart, will suddenly lose sight of his own region’s needs and wants.

How will the freshmen fit into the DFL caucuses? The two caucuses have a total of 40 newly elected members. They are disproportionately from suburban swing districts. This should make them understandably wary of embracing Dayton’s tax-the-rich rhetoric, lest they find themselves one-term wonders.

But while candidates often talk about bipartisanship and moderation on the campaign trail, the reality is that most yield to caucus edicts when it comes time to vote. Even if some freshmen are given the green light from leadership to buck the caucus on tough votes, they’ll still likely be held accountable by voters for the actions of the full legislative body.

During the last biennium, for instance, swing district GOP Reps. King Banaian of St. Cloud and Rich Murray of Albert Lea were given a pass to oppose cuts to higher education and local government aid. But those votes did little to help them at the ballot box in 2012. “At the end of the day, a lot of the letting people off of votes doesn’t work,” Seifert said.

How will DFLers navigate the property tax tar pit? During their two years in the minority, DFLers ripped Republicans for supporting policies that purportedly pushed up property taxes for homeowners across the state. In particular, they seized on the elimination of the Market Value Homestead Credit two years ago as evidence of the GOP’s lack of concern about property taxes. But it’s easy to call for reinstatement of that credit when you’re in the minority and there’s zero chance of it actually happening. Now the pressure will be squarely on Democrats to come up with a means of paying for the program, which would cost more than $500 million per biennium to put back in place.

There’s also fairly wide consensus that the state’s business property tax is poor policy. Republicans sought to begin phasing it out during the last legislative session, but were blocked by DFL intransigence. Now that they’re in the majority, taking a similar tack may prove alluring to the legislative majorities. Reducing the business property tax might help shield them from being smeared as tax-and-spend liberals.

What role will there be for Republicans? There already seems to be something of a divide emerging in the philosophy of the GOP caucuses regarding their roles in the minority. Incoming House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, of Crown, has gone out of his way to strike a conciliatory tone and vowed to work in conjunction with the DFL majority. Incoming Senate Minority Leader David Hann, by contrast, has taken a much more combative stance, suggesting that his caucus will largely play the role of protesting bystanders. That approach may reflect a difference in experience and ambition between the two minority leaders. Daudt is serving just his second term and still learning the byways of the Capitol, while Hann’s abiding gubernatorial ambitions undoubtedly color his approach.

Benson suggests that DFLers would be wise to follow the template put forth by former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe when he held the advantage of one-party rule. “A guy like Moe was astute enough to know that he did not want to sweep the table on everything,” Benson recalled. “He wanted to leave a little seed corn, let it grow a little bit. He was really good at that.”
How will the bonding dance play out? The only arena in which Democrats will undoubtedly need help from Republicans is in passing a bonding bill. That’s because passage requires support from a 60 percent supermajority. In the House, that means they’ll need to win eight Republican votes in order to gain passage; in the Senate, just two votes.

House Republicans, based on Daudt’s public comments, sound like they’re ready to play ball. “Especially for rural Republican members, they don’t want to be against a bonding bill,” said Grindal. “They’re going to say it’s got to be fundamentally reasonable and prudent, and they are going to get some stuff because they have to.”

Interestingly, the greatest resistance could come from Bakk. He’s been less than enthusiastic about a substantial capital investment package in his comments leading up to the session, pointing out that the state’s current debt capacity could support a package of just $225 million.

“Anything over $225 million, you have to find some cash to pay the debt service,” Bakk said at a session preview event earlier this month. “Unless the Republicans are willing to support some additional revenue, I’m not interested in deficit spending.”

Will the Vikings stadium need to be revisited? The dominant issue of the 2012 legislative session might not be settled. That’s because the primary funding mechanism for the state’s share of stadium construction costs — electronic pulltabs — isn’t meeting projections for revenue.

So far the gaming devices have brought in just under half what was initially anticipated. Dayton has insisted that the state’s take will improve as the games are rolled out at more locations. But the revenue shortfall raises the specter that legislators might have to revisit the issue in order to come up with additional revenue.

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