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Legislative session yields little drama so far

Mike Mullen//April 1, 2015

Legislative session yields little drama so far

Mike Mullen//April 1, 2015

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk appears to have mended fences with Gov. Mark Dayton after a dust-up over delaying raises for Cabinet members. (File photo: Bill Klotz)
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk appears to have mended fences with Gov. Mark Dayton after a dust-up over delaying raises for Cabinet members. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

The 2015 legislative session began at noon Jan. 6.

Didn’t it?

More than one Capitol observer said “nothing” has happened so far this year. Roughly 12 weeks after it started, the legislative term remains a session in need of a theme. There are numerous explanations for the slow start: carryover effect from apathy seen in the 2014 election, when voter turnout was historically low; a $1.9 billion surplus, which eased pressure on all sides; the lack of a single issue or set of issues that would define the Legislature’s ideology; a surprisingly deliberative Republican majority in the House matching the typically cagey Democratic caucus in Senate, neither side showing much too much of its hand or causing self-inflicted wounds.

Whatever its cause, the seeming quietude — with one hugely public and memorable exception — has had an alternatively unnerving or calming effect, depending on one’s perspective.

Marty Seifert, a former House minority leader who now lobbies for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said the lobbyist chatter outside chambers has often come back to the session’s indefinite nature. Years past had been dominated by flashpoint topics: what to cut — or whom to tax — in light of huge budget deficits, gay marriage, voter ID, right-to-work, the state’s partnership on a Minnesota Vikings stadium.

“That’s been the interesting thing this year, is the lack of interesting things,” Seifert said. “Mostly it’s been a lot of pretty routine bills.”

This isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of work for legislators, lobbyists and activists, though that work might have to be subtler than in a typical term. The slow pace and vaguely defined budget targets from both chambers leaves plenty of room for nuance. Whatever “victories” are obtained in 2015 could come down to reading between the line-items and mastery in the fine art of fine print.

A rundown of what’s transpired to date will inevitably leave some gaps and unfinished narratives; to hear some tell it, the session is as notable for what hasn’t happened.

Showdown … or slowdown?

The scenario of opposing caucuses in the House and Senate set the stage for a knock-down, drag-out fight over the budget. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, and some credit House Speaker Kurt Daudt for enforcing strict discipline among his caucus, including 19 freshmen.

Rather than embarking on ambitious or radical agenda pieces from the start, House committees endured lengthy walkthroughs of existing budgetary and policy laws. These educational efforts also served to slow the pace of action.

“Especially in the House, I thought we’d see more marquee pieces [of legislation] moved sooner,” said Thom Petersen, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Farmers Union.

The pace accelerated in recent weeks, mostly out of necessity, as members sought to meet committee deadlines. Petersen noted that the measured approach had left some more controversial proposals on the cutting-room floor, naming a broader exemption for odor-related nuisance claims against farmers as just one example.

Republicans have also demonstrated good messaging control, with a consistent tone and no notable slip-ups that could hurt the caucus this session, or in its next election. Republican Party of Minnesota chairman Keith Downey’s call for the Legislature to “give back” the surplus left a lot of caucus members “scratching their heads,” according to one Republican, but even there, Daudt and others avoided any major missteps.

The good behavior is a frustrating surprise to Bernie Hesse, a lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 union. Hesse has kept an eye on numerous committee and floor debates, especially over the controversial proposal to reduce the minimum wage for tipped employees, but to no avail.

“I’m amazed by the lack of spontaneous utterances by the Republicans guys and gals on the floor,” Hesse said. “They’ve shown remarkable restraint.”

Hesse thinks, or hopes, that some Republicans might begin to edge toward more extreme tendencies after meeting with constituents and activists during the Easer/Passover break.

The lack of major introductions could also signal a lack of imagination, at least in certain areas. Jim Abeler, a newly minted lobbyist who previously served as House Republican leader on health and human services, said he was disappointed by the lack of significant reform proposals for the state’s long-term care services. Aside from the push for “more money,” Abeler said he has not seen a bill that would make the enormous and costly system more efficient.

“That’s been a top-to-bottom phenomenon — the House, the Senate, the governor’s office and the [Department of Human Services],” Abeler said.

Seifert, acknowledged as something of a political mentor to Daudt, observed that Republican members were trying to be seen as “workhorses not show horses,” noting that committee chairs were opting to not even grant hearings to some more controversial bills.

“Their hope is to move a lot of their initiatives into omnibus bills, in an attempt at making some compromises to get a budget done on time,” Seifert said.

The Dayton-Bakk blowup

If Daudt’s caucus message control has been a subtle achievement, the House play on executive salary increases looks, in hindsight, like a masterstroke. It was House Republicans who first noted that the deficiency legislation, a typically noncontroversial bill to patch holes in agency budgets, also contained large pay increases for members of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Cabinet. And, perhaps more important, it was Republicans who made sure that information was brought to the attention of WCCO political reporter Pat Kessler.

Even still, few would have predicted the resulting explosion within the DFL. After Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk amended the bill to delay salary hikes until July, Dayton slammed his fellow Democrat in a press conference, saying he could no longer trust Bakk’s word.

That relationship has since been smoothed over, at least publicly, as Dayton and Bakk appeared side-by-side, and smiling, to roll out a comprehensive transportation funding package. But the episode, which some said could track back to the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when Dayton bested Bakk, revealed a “fissure, in what Democrats would hope would be a united front,” according to University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs.

The apparent distance between the Senate and the administration was also evident in the divergent budget priorities. Dayton, in his budget, is pushing for a more expansive spending program centered on education and families. The Senate majority sought a “middle ground” between the governor and the House, and is angling to put more money in the budget reserve and erase accelerated tax shifts that were originally enacted to balance budgets just before the end of a fiscal year.

“If Democrats could double-team the Republicans, they would have a lot greater chance of prevailing,” Jacobs said. “But moving into negotiations, you can assume it’s Bakk, Daudt and the governor, and that’s a lot different than Dayton and Bakk versus Daudt.”

The rural session

The one clear narrative that emerged from the 2014 election was a GOP resurgence in rural and outstate areas, as the party reclaimed 10 seats in previously DFL-held districts. The theme led to a natural focus on issues important to those communities, both for the House and the Senate, as Democrats eye potential vulnerabilities heading into the 2016 election.

The outstate focus could be part of the reason why House Republicans have forged ahead with social issues legislation, including bills to expand gun owners’ rights and limit access to abortion, despite the virtual impossibility those proposals could become law. Though Republican candidates mostly avoided social issues, like the DFL’s legalization of gay marriage, during the 2014 campaigns, those topics often appear as part of mail pieces distributed by outside spending groups, Jacobs said.

“The gun and abortion bills, those are votes that help Republicans come election time,” he said.

On environmental issues, which often animate rural constituencies in a larger way than urban and suburban areas, observers said Dayton has essentially split the difference this session. On one hand, the governor called for a much stricter state policy of 50-foot buffer zones around almost all lakes, rivers and streams, which farmers oppose. But Dayton has also expressed concern about overly strict regulations on the allowable amount of sulfate, a byproduct of taconite mining, in waters where wild rice is found.

The governor’s apparent change of heart came after recent announcements of mining layoffs and closures, which Aaron Brown, an Iron Range DFL activist and blogger, said are part of a continuous cycle of “ups and downs” in the industry. Brown worries that mining companies are seizing on the downturn to extract regulatory changes that, in the long run, would not lead to the rehiring of employees.

“It feels like opportunism, to me, from an industry that knows it’s going to be up-and-down,” Brown said.

Seifert, meanwhile, said lobbyists he had spoken with were surprised by the governor’s about-face, which he said could be a function of Iron Range Democrats “educating” Dayton about the issue.

“There have been a lot of complaints about [the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency], and how out of control they are,” Seifert said. “It seems like there’s some common denominator issues that are bringing Republicans and some of the Democrats together.”

As for the budget, Republicans have their work cut out for them as they look for space to fit rural priorities into somewhat constricted budget targets. Gary Carlson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said rural communities are asking for more money toward workforce housing, as well as county and city aid from the state, which could bump up against the GOP’s “huge target” of $2 billion in tax cuts.

Seifert noted that the rural and outstate shift was also occurring in the Senate, where Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, “hastily amended” a transportation bill to redirect $25 million toward small cities, which had previously been left out of the formula for transportation-related state funding.

Carlson said his staff had heard rumors that the House might soon hold a hearing on a bill from Rep. Dwayne Quam, R-Byron, to radically cut state aid to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. That proposal could have a “devastating” effect on the state’s major cities, especially if it affected their 2015 budgets, as currently constituted. If the bill does receive a strong push, it could be part of a negotiating ploy for House Republicans, though Carlson said the time for such maneuvering is quickly running out.

“I think they want to try get omnibus bills done by, what, [April] 17th?” Carlson said. “That doesn’t give them much time to get stuff done, and they’re going to have to start rolling-out a tax bill.”

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