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Status Report: Art debate, federal help, record voting

Art debate: With a dozen veterans sporting military patches in attendance — plus two men in Civil War-era garb and an Abraham Lincoln lookalike — a key panel overseeing Minnesota’s Capitol restoration moved Tuesday to keep several Civil War paintings displayed prominently inside the building when it reopens early next year.

The Capitol Preservation Commission’s vote won’t be the final say on the six Civil War paintings in the governor’s reception room, a major gathering area in the Capitol. That authority rests with the Minnesota Historical Society, which will handle the issue in early December.

Questions about what artwork will return to the Capitol halls have infused the four-year, $300 million renovation project with drama. Earlier this year, two paintings deemed to be offensive for their depiction of Native Americans were slated to be removed from the Governor’s Reception Room after months of contentious debate.

Gov. Mark Dayton had pushed for more change inside his reception room, arguing that the Civil War paintings don’t adequately represent the state’s entire history.

But Dayton didn’t participate in Tuesday’s vote. He left abruptly after the meeting began, angrily accusing a Republican who tried to build support for retaining the war paintings of “hijacking” the discussion for political gain.

Speaking after that meeting, Dayton said he stood by his comments but insisted he wasn’t pushing for the paintings’ outright removal. He said he wouldn’t attempt to sway the Minnesota Historical Society’s final decision.

Federal help: Minnesota residents buying health insurance through the state’s exchange are getting more help from the federal government.

MNsure said Tuesday that the average subsidy for health plans is $637, three times higher than last year. That extra financial help is critical with premiums skyrocketing for 2017 coverage.

MNsure officials said the tax credits act as immediate discounts on health insurance premiums, meaning they allow residents to get instant reductions on their monthly health insurance costs.

However, just 57 percent of MNsure shoppers qualify for financial assistance while the rest pay full price. Those making too much to get federal subsidies have been the focus of weeks of talk about a potential special session.

Gov. Mark Dayton has called for a rebate to offset the costs for those full-price payers. Lawmakers and state officials are still discussing how to deliver that aid.

Nearly 30,000 have purchased private insurance since Nov. 1. Open enrollment ends in January.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Dayton said that the House DFL caucus have expressed support for his rebate proposal after meetings between his staff and the four majority and minority caucus staffs on Monday.

House Republicans did not reject his proposal outright after those meetings, Dayton said, but neither were they prepared to support it “at this point.”

House Republicans were caucusing Tuesday afternoon to elect caucus leaders included the MNsure issue in their discussions, said Ben Golnik, the majority caucus executive director but nothing has yet been decided.

Record voting: Minnesotans set records for the total number of voters to cast ballots in a general election, the Secretary of State’s office announced Tuesday. Records also were set for the total number of voters who cast early ballots and the total number of voters who registered before Election Day.

The five-member State Canvassing Board certified the official Nov. 8 general election results Tuesday. According to the Secretary of State’s office, 2,968,281 voters cast ballots — a 74.72 percent turnout rate. That likely will rank first in the nation, Secretary of State Steve Simon said, citing turnout rates reported by the United States Election Project.

Among Minnesota’s voters, 678,336 — or 22.85 percent — cast early ballots this year, the secretary said.

“I challenged the people of Minnesota to return our state back to number one in voter turnout and it looks like Minnesotans stepped up to that challenge,” Simon said in a written statement.

He said that early voting and online voter registration numbers demonstrate that Minnesotans want increased convenience and accessibility when it comes to elections.

Simon’s office separately announced that a publicly funded recount would be conducted for the Senate District 14 legislative election, both because the vote difference was less than 0.5 percent and an official recount request from the losing candidate has been filed.

In that race, Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, was declared the winner against Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud. Wolgamott has submitted a request for a hand recount of ballots.

House leadership: Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, announced the new members of the House Republican Caucus leadership team Wednesday morning. The caucus elected Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, majority caucus whip for the 2017-18 legislative session. The role of the whip is to communicate information to other members of a party caucus during floor debate and before votes.

In addition, members of the caucus chose five assistant majority leaders. First-term Rep.-elect Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, and Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, were all elected to serve as assistant majority leaders. In addition, Daudt appointed Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, assistant majority leader and Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, speaker pro-tempore. Albright will oversee and conduct House floor debate when the speaker is away or unavailable.

What’s ahead: The House Ways and Means committee will meet at 1 p.m. Monday, Dec.5, in Room 200 of the State Office Building. Chaired by Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the committee will focus on a presentation of the November 2016 budget and economic forecast.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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