by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
This legislative session will be study in bulldozer politics.
Within the bounds of the state constitution, Democrats can accomplish virtually anything they want.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton can watch the State Capitol fill for the new session on Jan. 8, knowing his party controls the House and Senate.
Actually, the DFL grip on power is more sweeping, with Democrats holding all of the state constitutional offices.
Republicans, who lost control of the statehouse on Nov. 6, admit Democrats basically have a free hand to run state government.
It really comes down to whether Democrats want bipartisan bills, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said.
“So we’ll find out shortly, I’m sure, whether that interest in bipartisan legislation is going to be there,” he said.
Democrats insist they want to reach across the aisle — there’s common ground, such as with tax reform, they say.
“I’ve always had an open door,” said House Majority Leader-designate Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
And the door is staying open, she said.
Legislators don’t have a choice in acting bipartisanly, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, believes.
“They (voters) demand we work together,” she said.
That was a lesson of the election.
But the hard reality for Republicans is that Democrats can raise taxes, set budgets, pass same-sex marriage legislation without a single Republican vote.
Deep in the minority in House and Senate, the Republicans’ sole brake on Democratic ambitions is the bonding bill, the list of coveted projects that require a super majority to pass.
Senate Democrats need to convince at least two Senate Republicans to join them in order to pass a bonding bill. In the House, Democrats must scrounge up eight Republican votes to reach the 81-vote threshold.
This may not be easy, because Republicans view the bonding bill as leverage on other things.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, predicts Senate Republicans will hang tight on bonding.
Other Republicans agree.
“We have to be awful careful how we play that card,” Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said.
Lawmakers returning for two-year (2013-14) session confront a tamer state budget than in recent years.
While a $1 billion budget deficit is projected, rosier than anticipated revenues for this spending cycle allowed a buy-down of the school-aid shift.
The $2.4 billion shift was halved, with a little over a $1 billion remaining to pay back the money borrowed from schools.
Even so, state officials warn that inaction in Washington on the so-called federal fiscal cliff could damage the state budget and sow a recession.
Officials were so alarmed about this they crafted two separate state budget forecasts, the darker version reflecting a Washington meltdown.
For his part, Dayton insists the era of setting the state budget through the use of “gimmicks” like school shifts is over.
Incidentally, K-12 spending accounts for about 41 percent of the current $34 billion general fund budget, with health and human services making up about 32 percent.
No other portion of general fund spending comes anywhere close to these two.
Two closely watched issues this session will be taxes and same-sex marriage.
Lawmakers assume Dayton will include tax increases in his proposed state budget when it’s released in January.
Dayton campaigned on a “tax the rich” slogan, and two year ago included a fourth-tier income tax, a temporary surcharge, and other proposed tax increases in his budget.
But the Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t bite.
The governor shows a certain exasperation regarding tax increases, recently waving a hand showing two fingers at reporters to make plain his tax increases would only fall on the upper two percent of wage earners.
On one tax, the gas tax, Dayton has spoken against an increase — transportation advocates are looking for additional funding.
Senate Majority Leader-designate Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, urges constituency groups to show restraint — there isn’t going to be a lot of new money, he said.
Indeed, Democrats talk of budget cuts.
Republicans are unlikely to vote to raise taxes — House Minority Leader-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, indicated Republicans were probably most receptive to the notion in the area of transportation — but bipartisan support might be found in tax reform.
That is, if the reform is tax-revenue neutral.
“That would be something I would definitely be willing to look at,” Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, said.
Bakk recently proposed that Hann and he shake hands on pursuing legislation regarding capturing the state sales tax on Internet sales.
The offer wasn’t taken up.
State officials mention broadening the state sales tax as one means of broadening the tax base. The current over reliance on capital gain revenue, for instance, lends itself to volatility, said State Economist Tom Stinson.
“I think that we have to be concerned about having a broader (tax) base, and not carving out narrow pieces for individual self interests,” Stinson said on a Senate Media program.
One high-profile social issue simmering at the State Capitol is same-sex marriage.
Some Democratic lawmakers view the defeat of the marriage amendment as a green light to legalize same-sex marriage.
They talk of speedily taking up legislation early in the session.
But Bakk and House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, are more nuanced.
Both leaders suggest the conversation on same-sex marriage continue.
Thissen interprets the defeat of the amendment as voters saying they didn’t want to stop the conversation “cold.”
“It (the conversation) must continue,” Murphy said, stressing the need for debate outside of State Capitol walls.
Murphy, as other Democrats, argues that setting the budget should take priority over policy matters for now.
Gazelka, for one, senses he could be voting on same-sex marriage this session.
“I know they’ll be a fight within the Democratic Party,” he said of Democrats pursuing legislation.
The Newtown, Conn., shooting spree has some lawmakers talking about gun control.
Two years ago an attempt to close the perceived gun show background check loophole failed in committee.
Bonoff, for one, expresses hope the debate over banning military-style assault rifles and “banana” bullet clips be taken up at the State Capitol.
She also wants to improve mental health intervention efforts for families with a mentally ill family member.
Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, plans to pursue a bill prohibiting felons from obtaining a court waiver that allows them to possess firearms.
“They can go find a judge,” she said of shopping around for a favorable result.
Education Minnesota’s Tom Dooher in commenting on the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre also pointed to mental health intervention.
“We need to improve the mental health infrastructure for Minnesota students by reducing one of the worst counselor-to-student ratios in the United States, hiring more psychologists and social workers and improving access to community-based therapists,” said Dooher, teacher union president, in a statement.
Democrats look to pursue bonding in the first year, 2013, of the two-year session.
House Capital Investment Chairwoman Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, wants the House to speedily pass a bonding bill in the first months of the session.
“I think the public hates that,” said Hausman of the bonding bill becoming a pawn in end-of-session budget negotiations,
Dayton, too, has expressed support for a bonding bill next year, mentioning continued Capitol restoration bonding and civic center funding for St. Cloud, Rochester, and Mankato.
Some lawmakers look to the bonding bill as a funding source for Southwest Light Rail.
By using a long used formula, state officials calculate the state can bond for to up $1.3 billion this coming budget cycle.
But Republicans, holding precious bonding bill votes, argue bonding is supposed to be done the second year of the session, not the first.
Plus they argue against the state taking on more debt.
Many other issues await lawmakers.
The state needs to quickly have its version of the health care insurance exchange in place or face the possibility of having one imposed under the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
The governor speaks of job creation, tax reform, higher education as some of his priorities.
Dayton has also mentioned a willingness to take up election reform, noting Sen.-elect Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, House photo ID bill author, has indicated an eagerness to renew the effort.
Dayton insists that election reform legislation be bipartisan.
So here, along with bonding, Republicans have clout.
Republicans believe Democrats are poised to overreach, to do too much.
They see this as an opportunity for them to win back the House in two years — the Senate isn’t up reelection for four years.
“Any tiptoe we take, we’ll be accused of overreaching,” Dayton said.
But some area Democrats take the overreaching scenario seriously, arguing for a focus on the budget, a cautious approach to social issues.
Capitol insiders and Republicans expectantly watch for disputes breaking out among Democrats, the apparent dream of holding the Governor’s Office and legislature souring as rifts within the party broaden and the normal friction between House and Senate, Legislature and governor, warms.
Murphy expects some elbows to fly, but downplays the chance for political brawls breaking out.
Senate Democrats in caucus have talked about the need for working together.
“It’s a real opportunity to get things done,” Goodwin said.
“I don’t think it will be anything like it’s been like over the past few years,” she said of clashes between Democrats and Republicans.