Minnesota’s 2011 was wild political year

Minnesota’s 2011 began with liberal Mark Dayton becoming governor.

The next day, an ultra-conservative Legislature took the oath, the first time Republicans controlled both chambers in decades.

Minnesota politicos were shocked in December with the resignations of two Republicans who helped give the GOP legislative control, with one leaving a huge stack of bills to pay and the other admitting to an improper relationship with an employee. The resignations hit at two key Republican values: financial restraint and moral values.

The time between the swearing in ceremonies and the resignations featured divisive battles over tax-and-spend policies, plenty of talk but little action about a Vikings football stadium and some unusual twists that brought the governor and leading Republicans together.

And almost lost amid the year-end stunners, there was the 20-day July government shutdown that forced the state into the national spotlight.

It was a most unusual and memorial year in Minnesota politics.

“People are getting the government they voted for,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

In November of 2010, Minnesotans put Republicans in control of the Legislature, with many very conservative Tea Party lawmakers who oppose new taxes and more government spending. At the same time, they elected Dayton, who throughout his campaign promoted his dream of raising taxes on the rich as a way to deal with what turned out to be a $5 billion state budget deficit.

In an interview after the shutdown, Dayton told Forum Communications: “I told the Republican leaders in January that we are joined at the political hip. We could either make each other look good or make each other look bad. We made each other look bad.”

The problem may be rooted in the fact that all top legislative leaders and Dayton were new to their jobs. And Dayton got a late start because Republicans pushed his race with the GOP’s Tom Emmer into a lengthy recount.

Political Science Professor Paula O’Loughlin of the University of Minnesota Morris said the leaders may have learned something from 2011.

“I think that the shutdown was a learning experience, but I think actually they are going to find some ways they can work together better for a couple of reasons,” O’Loughlin said. “One, we have absolutely no reserves, but we are not broke. … That eases some of the pressure.”

Also, she said, “the Republican Party is in a form of disarray. They are not going to have the money to defend the seats they picked up.” That, she said, should convince some of them to compromise in the coming year.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, is 20 years younger than Dayton, but went into his job with more relevant experience than other leaders. All key leaders were new to their jobs, many never having held a significant legislative leadership position.

“I thought by being minority leader I would be a little more prepared, just the flow of the day, the ups the downs, the upturn, the downturn,” Zellers said. “It still did not come close to preparing me for what would happen.”

On top of leaders’ inexperience, a large percentage of regular members were new to the process.

“There was this expectation of we have taken over the world, now let’s take on the universe,” Zellers said about Republicans giddy with 2010 election success at home and across the country.

So Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, began to “manage those expectations down,” the speaker said.

“We would say you can pass that, but the governor is going to veto it,” Zellers said.

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, was a leader through the GOP’s first time in four decades to hold Senate power. He said Republicans compromised on their right-wing ideals.

“By definition, whatever we want to pass has to have his signature,” Michel said. “I would argue that we did move to the center on the budget. We ended up spending more than we wanted to.”

Dayton said there was a logical reason to compromise. “In the end, you work it out because you have to.”

All sides agree with O’Loughlin that 2012 should be smoother than 2011, since they learned early in December that the deficit disappeared. Republicans and Dayton agree that a 2012 priority should be reforming government so it is more efficient and less costly.

As 2012 neared, Republicans began to hurt themselves. Especially painful to the GOP was the disappearance of two people who led the party’s legislative resurgence.

Party Chairman Tony Sutton abruptly resigned Dec. 2, following Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb’s departure from the party. Sutton left hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debts, and some Republicans fear that could add up to more than $1 million the party owes.

Then on Dec. 15, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, left her leadership job, later admitting she had an improper relationship with an employee.

Immediately after Koch’s resignation, Republican senators began considering whether to seek her job. With a caucus that varies from a few moderates to several conservative veterans and a majority of even more conservative freshman senators, the question to be answered is whether any leader can bring them all together.

O’Loughlin said that Tea Party members, mostly new to campaigning in 2010, may have learned politics.

“I think that what they have realized is that they can actually accomplish things in the Legislature and if they lose the seat, they are not going to be able to accomplish any of their goals,” she said.

Zellers agreed, saying his new members have matured and realize they can find ways to get Dayton to sign bills. But the bottom line for optimism is money.

“I do think because we are not in a predicted deficit, that is going to make a remarkable difference,” Zellers said.

State leaders getting to know each other helps, too, he added. “Because we were all so new, there was not that level of trust there, or maybe predictability. We just didn’t know each other.”

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