By Don Davis, Andrew Tellijohn and Danielle Nordine
Democrats’ term for the just-completed Minnesota legislative session is “do nothing,” but if that is true the House speaker said it is because of what he calls Gov. Mark Dayton’s top priority.
“I blame it all on the stadium,” Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said.
Zellers, who opposed the stadium financing plan, said “it took up so much time, so much
Democratic Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth sided with Zellers on that point: “This is what kind of took all the energy out of the room, all the energy out of the building.”
Both sides talk more about failings than successes, blaming each other.
“I would say the session was disappointing overall, salvaged by the last two major issues” of public works and stadium spending, Democrat Dayton said.
“If there would be a theme, it would be going from red to black,” Zellers said of the state budget ending with a bit of a surplus after recovering from a big deficit.
Dayton, Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, claim to have good personal relationships, but the governor said that being friends only goes so far when they are negotiating contentious policy issues.
“Compromise means we will do it their way,” Dayton said about Republicans.
Zellers said Dayton ignores GOP priorities.
The two-year session ended on the 119th day Thursday, tying it for the second longest and just one day short of the number the state Constitution allows.
Some point to approving a Vikings stadium construction plan as a premier accomplishment done with bipartisan work. But as Zellers said, the stadium did not fit into the normal partisan column. Two Republicans led the charge, but more Democrats than Republicans voted for the bill, as well as a public works package.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the session “was about to go down … as the biggest do-nothing session,” but it did not because Democrats were able to put up the votes to approve a stadium.
Bakk said the session likely will have the fewest number of bills signed into law since
1869, something Republicans who believe in smaller government consider a plus.
Republicans decry Dayton’s opposition to major tax relief for businesses. The GOP passed bills to eliminate a statewide business property tax and do other things to help business, saying that is the best way to create jobs. Dayton vetoed major tax changes.
At the same time, Dayton and other Democrats argued for a major public works bill as a job creator. Dayton wanted to borrow $775 million to fix and build public facilities statewide, as well as $241 million to renovate a decaying Capitol building.
Republicans wanted to spend much less, but eventually compromised on a $496 million bill including a beginning of Capitol work. Dayton signed it Friday, saying he wanted to spend more that what the Legislature passed was better than nothing.
Some lawmakers said the public works and stadium bills, as well as a few others, prove state leaders worked together.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, for instance, credited GOP leaders and Dayton for approving initiatives surrounding business permitting, protecting school trust land and fee increases for hunting and fishing.
“When you look back over the last couple of years, the governor has signed a lot of bills where we worked together with the administration,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be able to do.”
Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, agreed this was a successful session.
“I think we’ve done a lot,” Vogel said, adding that he was optimistic the Legislature’s work would stimulate the economy enough to wipe out a projected deficit for the next biennium.
Reinert disagreed with Republicans.
“I don’t think there is much to show, not just this year, but for the two years of the biennium,” Reinert said. “We have a Vikings stadium, two mediocre bonding bills and two constitutional amendments. I’m a college teacher. I wouldn’t give the Legislature any more than a D for that effort.”
The constitutional amendments, to be in front of voters Nov. 6, were partisan and controversial. One would ban gay marriages, the other require Minnesotans to show photo identification before voting.
Successful or not, there were problems.
“We’ve got a crisis every day, I’ll tell you that,” Senjem said as the session ended.
That especially was true for lawmakers he leads. Those problems began in December, when then-Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, resigned her post after fellow GOP senators confronted her about an affair she had with a Senate employee. The Senate faces legal problems over the incident.
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, faces still-unresolved ethics charges over how he dealt with the aftermath of the Koch scandal.
Senjem, who won his job by a single vote, was a target of fellow Republicans. That especially became public near the end of the session, when some Republican senators questioned his leadership, both in person and via Twitter.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said the state’s fiscal condition has improved steadily during the two-year biennium, primarily due to Republican leadership during the last two sessions.
“There is no dispute that Minnesota is in a better economic position than it was two years ago,” he said, adding that he is hopeful the improving economy will wipe out the rest of a projected deficit before the 2013 session.
Both Republicans and Democrats were adamant that jobs would be the main focus heading into the session. Garofalo acknowledged that there is always more that can get done, but he said the Legislature did a good job sticking to its goals.
“It’s like candy and money, you can never have enough,” he said of job creation. “Even the most pessimistic Democrat would have to concede this was a very successful legislative session.”
The Legislature passed a number of bills that would help create a business climate under which owners could create jobs, Vogel said. Those measures included further streamlining of permitting laws.
“There are several things in there that will be good to help with jobs,” Vogel said, adding that construction workers will be aided by the two signature bills, one passing a public works funding package and the other a Vikings stadium.
Vogel also was glad to see the passage of Jacob’s Law, which closed a loophole regarding parental notification in cases where children are victims of sexual abuse.
“That was a big deal for me,” he said.
Reinert said the last two years have been disappointing for the state and reflect a lack of statesmanship.
Reinert blamed Republicans, saying the majority party often did not agree within its ranks.
“We don’t have folks in the Legislature anymore who are willing to be Minnesotans first and other labels second, “That was evident in the Senate. We would sit on the floor for hours waiting for the majority to hash things out behind closed doors and then they would come to the floor and be clearly within disarray in their own caucus.”
Reinert said the two most significant bills that passed this year were the Vikings stadium effort and a bonding bill and in both cases Democrats provided more votes.
While acknowledging that those two bills would help put trade workers back to work, Reinert also lamented the lack of long-term job creation and lawmakers’ inability to take a productive look at perhaps eliminating some of the state’s nearly 300 tax forgiveness rules, which he said would allow Minnesota to bring revenue into its coffers without raising taxes on anyone.
“Partisanship really got in the way of having a productive session,” Reinert said.
Reinert said laws expanding the number of chemicals and increasing penalties against synthetic drugs was a positive for people he represents.
Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, entered January feeling as though a successful hinged on bipartisan work on a couple issues: a bonding bill and the Vikings’ stadium. It took awhile to get there, but he was satisfied with the result.
“There wasn’t much done until we got to the last two weeks, but the point is it got done and we did it on a bipartisan basis,” Saxhaug said.
Saxhaug also thought Republicans and Democrats worked well together in increasing fees to support the game and fish fund and in setting up a hunting season for wolves.
“That was really pretty significant,” he said.
McNamara said bonding bills passed in both 2011 and 2012 included many projects with statewide significance. He also was particularly excited about a provision allowing kids under 18 to hunt and fish for a $5 fee.
“That’s great news as we try to get our kids outdoors,” he said.