Behind-the-scenes work readies lawmakers for Jan. 8

It is a busy, busy time in legislative offices these days.

Some legislators and employees are packing up to leave after election losses or voluntary retirements. New folks are moving in. All remaining incumbents are shifting offices as House and Senate majorities change from Republican to Democrat.

But the real work is going on quietly behind the scenes as lawmakers get to know each other and prepare for what likely will be a tough legislative session writing a budget while facing a deficit and federal budget problem that probably will trickle down to Minnesota.

House and Senate Democrats and Republicans have elected leaders as Democrats prepare to retake control of both chambers when the Legislature convenes at noon Jan. 8.

“The transition for our caucus is going pretty well, probably better than I expected,” Senate Majority Leader-elect Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

But routine tasks such as assigning lawmakers office space and arranging for moving, painting and other needs have overtaken policy discussion to a large extent.

While leaders and committee chairmen have been named, lawmakers preparing to move into new offices are awaiting committee assignments early next month.

Legislative leaders say one of the most requested assignments is for an education committee.

In the House, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, will be chairman of the Education Finance Committee and he plans to at least begin a major overhaul of how education is funded in Minnesota. The work could take more than one year.

“The key is how can you set up a system … to have a stable and fair system?” he said, emphasizing that Minnesota schools need to rely less on property taxes.

Property taxes have doubled in 10 years across Minnesota, he said.

“I think the state should be paying as much as possible when it comes to general education and getting students to improve their performance,” Marquart said, but local districts could opt to spend more to go beyond the basics.

Too many schools are forced to ask voters to increase property taxes, he added. “No student in Minnesota should be one no vote away from losing their education or their school.”

Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to reveal his tax overhaul plan in the coming weeks, which Marquart hopes provides a basis for change.

“A DFL (legislative) majorly with a DFL governor, this is a real opportunity,” Marquart said.

Marquart, who has been a DFL leader on property tax issues, said he wants Republican support for any major school finance reform.

House Majority Leader-elect Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said during the campaign voters told candidates they are very interested in education issues.

Legislative leaders are not talking much about specifics at this point.

“We should keep our ear to the ground as we move forward,” Murphy said, making decisions as they hear from Minnesotans.

It also is unclear what can happen in 2013 besides writing a two-year state budget. Budget problems in Washington are likely to affect the Minnesota budget.

“Because of the cycle of deficits we have experienced … we have been very good at preparing for the work we have to do while being nimble,” Murphy said.

Given an expected state deficit and the federal questions, Bakk says he wants to limit debate on items that do not involve the budget.

One issue he is fighting is eliminating a law that bans gay marriage.

“We are getting some calls from some real liberal constituencies on the gay marriage issue and repealing the language in statute,” Bakk said.

Such requests were expected given the fact that it has been 22 years since Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature and held the governor’s office. But Bakk said that Democrats have to balance serving their constituencies and adopting the budget.

“One of the challenges will be just to manage all of those expectations,” he said.

Those pressures are coming from outside groups, not his senators, Bakk said. “No, not yet.”

“We have to do other things first,” he said.

Many expect a report early next month to show the state would face a deficit without adding revenue or cutting programs. How to fix that problem should take priority, Bakk said, not policy issues.

“I am pretty reluctant to get into anything that is of a divisive nature,” he said. “There has been enough political rancor around here.”

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