If the coming legislative session is as civil and agreeable as the annual Fredikson & Byron Session Outlook event Thursday, it’s just possible some things might get accomplished.
On the dais to discuss the regular session that starts on Jan. 3 — and the potential December special session — were Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, incoming Senate majority leader; Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, the incoming assistant Senate minority leader; Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, House Ways & Means Committee chair; and Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, incoming House minority leader.
In contrast to last year’s somewhat more contentious event, panelists Thursday tended to discuss areas where they can work together.
Gazelka, for instance, emphasized his intended role as a “bridge-builder” as he tackles his top priority, fixing the health care crisis. As he has done previously, he emphasized that the GOP Senate has just a 34-33 majority and a DFL governor to contend with, so it must not overplay its hand.
“We already know where the governor is not going to bend,” Gazelka told the assembled crowd of perhaps 150 people. He also pledged not to “play the clock,” as moderator Mary LaHammer of Twin Cities PBS put it, by delaying bills until end of session. “We are going to get bills to the governor earlier,” he said.
Gazelka reversed himself on one previous statement to the press, which he made after he was elected majority leader in mid-November.
Then, he said he would not support moving forward with a special session that only took on short-term relief for the health care crisis, insisting that a quick-fix come paired with broader reforms. Those could include allowing farmers and small businesses to buy into small-group insurance plans or loosening restrictions on which physicians that patients insured through the state’s health exchange are allowed to see.
Gazelka now says he has changed his mind and supports a quick-fix special session. (Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed rebates to buy down massively increased premiums on the individual market.) Larger reforms can wait until the regular session, the new majority leader said.
Special session likely
There was unanimity among the lawmakers that a special session likely would happen sometime around Dec. 20. The governor’s staff and those of caucus leaders were still working out the details Thursday, and a final special-session decision had not been announced at press time.
Gazelka said he was about 80 percent confident that a special session would come to pass. If so, it likely would pair insurance relief with renewed efforts to pass last session’s vetoed tax bill and its failed bonding bill.
“I think everybody wants to get there,” Gazelka said of the special session. But he cautioned it is not a certainty: “I think the bonding bill is the biggest area of heartburn.”
Hints surfaced during the forum of the rural-versus-urban divide on transportation funding, with Gazelka and Knoblach emphasizing the need for road and bridge projects while Dziedzic said her Minneapolis constituents want more mass-transit options than the expanded urban bus services Gazelka prefers.
But even here there was equanimity. Gazelka said he thinks a long-term transportation bill could pass in 2017 without a tax increase, if existing taxes on auto-parts sales are dedicated to transportation projects.
Dziedzic also was hopeful. “I think we can find common ground,” she said. Lawmakers who worked on the last session’s transportation bill conference committee worked hard to find common cause, she said, even though their efforts ultimately failed. She said she is confident they will do the same in 2017.
Hortman agreed but cautioned against including in a transportation bill any earmarked projects if MnDOT professionals have not declared them shovel-ready.
“The magical formula is compromise between transit and roads and between Greater Minnesota and the metro area,” Hortman said. MnDOT professionals consulting with county engineers from around the state are in the best position to arrive at intelligent compromise, she said.
Flash of dispute
There was only a single moment of animated disagreement, occurring late in the forum at InterContinental St. Paul-Riverfront, in a debate over the wisdom of bonding to fund transportation projects.
“Can I just say what a disaster it is to use bonding to fund transportation from a policy standpoint?” Hortman said.
States around the nation have had problems paying for transportation systems, she said. Some have used borrowed bonding money for that purpose, she added, and have gotten trapped in a cycle of debt. “You would end up paying the New York bond houses as much as you are paying your Minnesota general contractors,” Hortman said.
Minnesota has always maintained pay-as-you-go transportation financing, she said, asserting that the approach actually decreases the costs of transportation projects over time.
Knoblach was not sold. “I guess by that logic, we should scrap the bonding bill entirely,” he said. “Why not pay cash for all those higher education projects? Why not pay cash for all those environmental projects? Why not pay cash for all the other things that are in the bonding bill?”
For the most part, however, panelists seemed intent on avoiding partisan hot buttons.
Gazelka, for instance, sounded a refrain he has often repeated since being named majority leader and taking the seat that likely would have gone to Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, had Hann not lost his re-election bid.
Gazelka pledged that his Senate majority would not repeat the mistakes of 2011-12, the truncated Senate term during which the GOP exerted control for the first time in 40 years. The House also had a GOP majority that biennium.
Things did not go so well. There was an extended state government shutdown that summer, a $6 billion deficit to work through and an emphasis by Republicans on controversial social issues. That led to an embarrassing defeat at the ballot box when the GOP tried to put a gay-marriage ban into the state Constitution.
In response to a question from LaHammer, the long-time TPT Capitol correspondent, Gazelka said his caucus members need not be reminded to go easier this time around.
“We were pretty exuberant,” Gazelka said of the previous majority. “For sure, we are going to take it slower and be more thoughtful.”
That does not mean he plans to entirely swear off social issues, however. “Much of the party, including myself, is very passionate about social issues,” Gazelka said. “But we are going to go to the ones that we all agree to.”
Specifically, he mentioned school choice — offering families alternatives to public schools. “If we give children that are struggling in different situations other options, well, that’s a social issue,” Gazelka said. “But that’s something that we think makes a lot of sense and that we can move forward.”
At one point, the subject turned to clear political messaging — something pundits suggest Democrats lacked during their losing 2016 campaign. LaHammer challenged Dziedzic to offer the audience a simple Democratic message, akin to the one (“Make America Great Again”) that President-elect Donald Trump printed on baseball caps.
“What are Democrats for?” the moderator asked. “What is the simple, straightforward message?”
“Fighting for policies that provide economic and financial security, and making them feel more secure, and that we want schools that communities are proud of,” Dziedzic replied.
“That might not fit on a hat,” LaHammer said as the audience laughed.