First-day smiles will give way to legislative battles

It was smiles and bigger smiles today as Minnesota’s 201 legislators took their oaths of office, hiding the overriding fact of the new legislative session featuring the most drastic change in state leadership in decades as Republicans took control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

That comes a day after Mark Dayton became the first Minnesota Democrat to move into the governor’s office in 20 years.

As legislators launched their 2011 session at noon today, they welcomed 36 new House members and 24 freshmen senators. And perhaps more importantly, all legislative leaders are new to their positions, something that has not happened in most politicos’ memory.

“It has a different feel to it, being in the majority,” Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said before going in front of a camera for a symbolic swearing-in ceremony.

Gimse, newly minted chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the smiles will change as the session goes on. “There will be some wrangling going on.”

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, was being as optimistic as possible, being in the House minority.

“We are ready to cooperate responsibly,” she said.

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, newly elected to the upper body from the House, was among the most realistic in admitting that there will be problems between Dayton and Republican leadership.

“I’m not making any summer plans,” Reinert said, referring to a chance that lawmakers and Dayton will not figure out how to plug a $6.2 billion budget hole by the time the Legislature must adjourn on May 23. Some around the Capitol predict a special session will be needed to enact a two-year budget that begins on July 1.

Much of today was devoted to family and routine business. The House and Senate formally filled their key jobs and conducted formal business as family members sat with lawmakers on the floor. Senators met for less than an hour and representatives a bit longer.

Many predict a slow start to the session, since Dayton and legislative leaders are just getting into office. In Dayton’s case, things were slowed because of a recount that stretched more than a month beyond the Nov. 2 election.

Dayton’s budget proposal is due Feb. 15, expected to be followed by a Republican counterproposal. Until then, the main work of the session may be not be seen by the public.

That main work is figuring out how to fix a $6.2 billion state budget deficit as Democrats and Republicans bring opposing ideas to the table. Dayton wants a combination of state spending cuts and increasing taxes on Minnesota’s top earners. Republicans concentrate on cuts.

In his inaugural speech Monday, Dayton listed two state tax cuts in the same category as wars and recessions. “We stagger from one huge deficit to the next,” he said.

Dayton’s general plan does more than raise taxes and cut spending. He also wants to make government more efficient.

The latter fits with GOP ideas, too.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said in an interview that the fact that Dayton and Republicans agree that they need to make business regulations and the permitting process easier for businesses is a good place to begin to improve government.

“We will start with things we agree on,” Zellers said.

With 60 of the 201 legislators new to the job, many committees will begin with learning their jobs. Many committee chairmen say their initial meetings this year will center on bringing in people from agencies they oversee to get a better idea about what goes on in state government.

Most eyes today are on the Senate, where there is little experience leading a legislative body. Most Republicans, now in a 37-30 majority, have said in the past that it was up to Democrats to lead. Now it is up to them.

In Minnesota, the party holding the majority in the House or Senate controls bills that are heard and committees that hear them. In most cases, minority party members have little power.

While the Senate has been a Democratic-Farmer-Laborite body for 40 years, the House has switched from DFL to GOP over the years. Democrats held control the past four years, after eight years in Republican hands.

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