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As they prepare to take the reins of state government starting in 2013, Minnesota Democrats are attempting to strike a delicate balance between erasing a projected budget deficit and handling pent-up demand to tackle liberal social issues after two decades of divided control in St. Paul.

Minnesota’s DFL majorities face social issues pressure

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, plans to reintroduce his bill to legalize gay marriage when the Legislature convenes in January. (File photo)

Liberal base wants action on gay marriage, other issues

As they prepare to take the reins of state government starting in 2013, Minnesota Democrats are attempting to strike a delicate balance between erasing a projected budget deficit and handling pent-up demand to tackle liberal social issues after two decades of divided control in St. Paul.

Most post-election analyses have blamed a focus on controversial social issues for propelling Republican legislators into the minority on Nov. 6, just two years after the GOP made historic gains to take control of the Legislature. While that was a key line of attack for Democrats both on the campaign trail and during their tenure in the minority, some DFL legislators are spending the weeks prior to session in meetings with activists and members of their community who want to see action on issues ranging from legalizing medical marijuana to immigration laws when session starts.

Perhaps the most intense battle outside the budget/taxes arena is the brewing showdown over whether to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. Some lawmakers are arguing the issue should be taken up immediately, before the February forecast and budget work begins.

“Part of the tension you are going to see, and you’re already seeing it, is how much [do] Democrats prioritize budget issues over social issues?” DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani said. “As a politician I get that, but I also think that’s a weak frame for us to be looking at reality. There’s also the argument of morality, [that] social issues should not be pushed aside until you figure out your pocket book.”

Gay marriage already causes DFL friction

By some lawmakers’ assessment, voters’ defeat of a GOP-proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine anti-gay marriage language into the state’s constitution in November means the state is also ready to repeal the state laws that prevent gay marriage. Other DFL legislators, including members of Senate and House leadership, are considerably more guarded on the topic.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk has been the most vocally cautious member of Democratic leadership on the gay marriage issue, saying budget work needs to be their main focus when session starts.

“I think that anybody who has policy ideas needs to find a way to put them on the back shelf right now,” Bakk said at a press conference the day after the election. “This state has serious financial challenges.”

But leadership will face pressures from liberal metro-area DFL legislators, including Sen. John Marty and Rep. Alice Hausman, as well as more moderate members like DFL Rep. Melissa Hortman. They are all calling for immediate action. “Go see the movie ‘Lincoln.’ Then tell me the [Legislature] should ‘go slow’ on affirming equal rights for everyone,” Hortman tweeted recently.

Hausman, a 12-term legislator from St. Paul, would like to see a pro-gay marriage bill passed before the February budget forecast.

“Everyone knows the calendar, and that we aren’t going to get the forecast until late February. And there’s no way you can start shaping the budget until that final forecast,” she said. “This would not get in the way and it would take no time at all.”

With 55 Democrats and 21 Republicans living in districts that defeated the proposed marriage amendment, Hausman says legalizing gay marriage should be an easy sell. Democrats only need 68 votes to pass any bill.

“This is an issue we’ve moved beyond, and you saw it in votes across the country,” Hausman said. Minnesota voters broke a 30-state streak of voting in favor of defining gay marriage as the union of one man and one woman in the constitution, and two states, Maryland and Washington, voted to legalize gay marriage on Nov. 6. “We started the discussion and defeated the amendment. Now we just have the close the loop in state law.”

Marty, DFL-Roseville, has carried a bill to legalize gay marriage for the last several years. He plans to do the same when session starts next year.

“The bottom line is, attitudes are changing and they are changing month by month,” he said. “I think it’s long overdue that we give people equal rights, and… the previous Republican Legislature told the public to weigh in on this, and they did.”

Marty is aware of leadership’s hesitation to take on the issue immediately. His goal is to get committee hearings and at least start the discussion this session, he said.

“We are 100 years too late,” he said. “It is not item one on the top of the agenda, but it is something we ought to do.”

Dems consider marijuana, amendments

While both GOP-proposed constitutional amendments failed on election night, including one to require voters to show a photo ID to vote, one Democratic representative is hoping to minimize the likelihood of the whole ordeal happening again.

Rochester Rep. Kim Norton plans to reintroduce a constitutional amendment bill that she authored last session to require a two-thirds vote from the Minnesota House and Senate to put other amendments on the ballot. That move itself would have to be made as a constitutional amendment, since the state’s founding document currently calls for a simple majority vote of the Legislature to pass amendments onto the ballot. Norton says she was appalled by the $16 million that poured into the marriage amendment campaigns this fall, and says most other states have a higher bar for passing ballot initiatives.

“After seeing the amount of money that was spent on both sides this last election, that really affirmed the importance of this,” she said. Norton knows her bill faces challenges. “After what happened last session, I’m sure there won’t be a lot of push for constitutional amendment activity this session,” she said. “But we should at least talk about the principle and policy of amending the constitution.”

Some Democrats in Minnesota are also eyeing legalizing marijuana in Minnesota after two states — Washington and Colorado — approved ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana use for residents over 21. Minnesota NORML executive director Randy Quast says they are drafting a bill to legalize marijuana for both medical and personal use, and the group is in talks with Minneapolis DFL Rep. Susan Allen to carry a medical marijuana bill.

“Democrats added support for medical marijuana to their platform this year, and generally polling shows a lot of support for this,” Quast said. “But NORML’s position has always been the best way to get it to patients is just to legalize it outright.”

But Gov. Mark Dayton has already gone on the record opposing any such initiative, telling the Associated Press in a December 7 interview, “As long as law enforcement believes whatever is being proposed is going to make society more dangerous, I’m going to honor their concerns.”

Mariani, in addition to being a supporter of legalizing gay marriage this session, also hopes to resume his previous efforts on behalf of the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented Minnesota high school graduates to pay an in-state tuition rate if they attended high school in the state for three years.

Part of the act passed during Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration as a result of broader negotiations on an omnibus higher education bill. Pawlenty agreed to give in-state tuition rates at most Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) institutions for undocumented students.

The question facing Mariani and other supporters, including DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein, is whether there’s value in pushing forward with the rest of the act. Not all MNSCU institutions are required to follow the act, and the University of Minnesota currently doesn’t offer the tuition rates to undocumented students.

“The question for that community is, is there value in pushing forward with the full bulk of the Dream Act?” he said. “Do we come back with the original Dream Act, or a Dream Act-plus, or do we claim victory there and come back with a new age of policy? Those are the things we will be exploring, but I’m certainly really interested in pushing this issue in the Legislature one way or another.”

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