By Danielle Killey
Minnesota Democrats had enough members to pass nearly anything they wanted, but this legislative session remained about as contentious as any other.
It was not necessarily a surprise to many Democrats, who say their party contains a variety of opinions and members from across the state. They can disagree as much with each other as Republicans.
The Democrats proved that even with one party in charge, putting together a state budget is not easy.
Minnesota lawmakers bumped up against their constitutionally set adjournment deadline to pass a $38 billion, two-year state budget and faced troubles and triumphs along the way.
One of the closest-watched issues was taxes.
Many plans were tossed around before lawmakers landed on a $2 billion increase coming from adding a fourth tier income tax bracket up 2 percentage points from the current top rate, increasing cigarette taxes and expanding some sales taxes to services such as warehousing.
Democrats said the bill was the way to pay for top priorities such as education funding.
But Republicans say it will do more harm than good.
“I think the people of the state of Minnesota will find out this is not just a tax on the rich, it’s a tax on everybody,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.
The process was not smooth, and at one point a tax bill failed in the Senate before being revived and narrowly passing when a handful of Democrats switched to voting yes.
Same-sex marriage emerged early as a top issue for constituents after Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
It was unclear whether Democrats would have the votes to pass it, as many rural members opposed the measure. But in the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate approved the bill and Gov. Mark Dayton drew a crowd of thousands to watch him sign it into law.
Lawmakers also passed a plan to set up the state’s health insurance exchange program, now named MNsure, early in the session.
Democrats said this would be the “education session” and made investment in public schools, colleges and universities a priority. They gathered some Republican support for those plans, which included funds to freeze tuition in the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems.
Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time in two decades, a prospect both exciting and daunting to those lawmakers.
“We’ve certainly taken advantage of it,” Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, said of Democratic control.
Republicans accused the party of overreach throughout the session, and some Democrats agreed.
“We did not learn the lesson of Republicans two years ago,” said Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette. “A lot of people went for as much as they could get.”
It did not always work.
Democrats originally tried to make major changes to gun control policy, but that effort was curbed by Republicans and many rural Democrats.
Others said people will argue that Democrats did not use their control to its fullest.
“Some people will think we haven’t gone far enough,” said Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar.
Even before the session began, concerns surfaced about rural representation; with three of the four top legislative leaders coming from the Twin Cities.
Democrats said they consciously picked many committee chairmen from rural areas to help balance control, but it did not allay worries from greater Minnesota members, especially Republicans.
“I raised my concerns on Day 1,” said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and it remained an issue.
“There’s just been a tension” between the parties, he said.
Republicans said they do not feel they were included in key discussions, such as on the budget.
“I just didn’t see them reaching out to us,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said of Democrats. “I’m disappointed with the lack of willingness to work together to solve problems.”
Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said while Republicans did not have much control over decisions, they could raise concerns.
“I think we pointed out a lot of counterarguments that wouldn’t otherwise have been heard,” he said.
Sawatzky said Democrats did not accomplish as much as they might have wanted to in this session, but they are laying the groundwork for years to come.
“We’re setting up a comprehensive plan for the future,” she said. “It’s going to take some time to do what we need to do.”
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said he is happy with how the session went.
“To be honest, it’s been phenomenal,” Huntley said.
Huntley was frustrated when targets originally revealed he would have to cut $150 million from the Health and Human Services budget, which he helps organize. But the final product, approved by lawmakers last week, trimmed only $50 million and gave more money to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
“I wish we could have got a little more for long-term care,” he said. The sector got a 1 percent hike, while nursing homes saw a 5 percent increase.
Huntley said he was glad to help pass the higher education funding bill.
“Tuitions are out of control,” he said.
There were other parts of the session that disappointed Huntley.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough in transportation,” he said.
But overall he was happy.
“Ultimately it was very businesslike and we got the work done,” Huntley said. “I’m pleased with it.”
McNamar said the work has been difficult.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he said.
McNamar was happy with the session overall, though he said it was tougher than he anticipated.
“I was not expecting it to be this intense, this hard,” McNamar said.
A particularly difficult vote was on same-sex marriage, he said. He ultimately voted for the proposal Dayton signed this month.
The emotional toll was significant, he said.
“It seems like every bill I’m pulled on both sides,” McNamar said.
McNamar said top priorities were met, including stabilizing Local Government Aid, lowering property taxes and funding education.
“I’ve accomplished everything I wanted to get done,” he said.
Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said Democrats in charge of the Legislature looked to the last 10 years when they raised taxes and increased spending on programs such as education.
“What I believe is happening is just catching up,” Eken said, noting that many areas of the state budget have been cut in the past decade.
While the $2 billion in tax increases get headlines, Eken said that people in his northwestern Minnesota area will remember “the tax relief, not the tax increases.” Democrats say their tax bill will provide $400 million in property tax relief.
Eken said Minnesotans have other good news: “You are not going to see enormous fee increases.”
Taxes likely are headed up in suburbs, Eken said, but not in much of Minnesota.
“In our areas, you are going to see some significant property tax relief,” he said.
Increased Local Government Aid to cities will cut taxes there, Eken added.
Some taxes may not fall, Eken said, but property taxes at least could slow to stop their increases.
Sawatzky said she enjoys her role in the work at the Capitol.
“It’s nice to bring back a message and be a voice for people at home,” she said.
“You realize everybody’s not going to get what they want,” Sawatzky said. “And that’s good.”
Sawatzky said some concerns that social issues such as same-sex marriage were taken up before finishing the budget were not entirely accurate.
“It all takes time and life goes on in between,” she said, noting conference committees were hashing out budget differences while the other bills were before lawmakers.
Sawatzky said she has enjoyed seeing the action firsthand and getting a chance to make a difference.
“In order to change something you can’t just sit at home and hope it will change,” she said.
Sawatzky said people will have different views of whether Democrats tried to do too much with their control this year.
Erickson said he was happy to have his priorities — education funding and stabilizing the budget — fulfilled.
“I think we’ll have a very nice body of work to take back to our districts,” Erickson said.
He said was disappointed in the lack of attention to aquatic invasive species solutions and funding.
“There are not enough people realizing this is a dangerous situation in Minnesota,” Erickson said.
Erickson said a key issue split more along geographic rather than party lines was the gun control debate.
“The outstate people weren’t going to have anything to do with it, and it went away,” Erickson said.
“I have an awful lot of things I agree with with outstate Republicans,” Erickson said. “Oftentimes we do cross party lines” on rural issues.
Fabian said social issues got “wrapped around the axle and mucked things up.”
Fabian said he is concerned the Democratic plans will make Minnesota less competitive and border cities might lose businesses and residents.
Fabian said negotiations with the Senate and governor’s office made many budget bills worse rather than better.
“We went down to the 11th hour trying to put the budget together with one-party control this whole time,” Fabian said.
Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, said she was working to try to stop bad bills.
“There’s no balance of power now in our government,” Kieffer said. “There’s no stops.”
Kieffer said the economy has been recovering.
“My biggest fear is that some of the stuff we’re doing now is going to hurt that recovery,” she said.
Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said lawmakers aimed to set a good budget for Minnesota.
“We might not always agree, but I think we knew we need to make important investments in the future of our state,” Clausen said.
“I appreciate the opportunity the voters have given me,” Clausen said. “I am mindful every day of that responsibility and try to make good decisions.”
Hamilton said he was frustrated that nursing homes and other areas of the budget will not get the increase in funding they asked for even though the state will raise billions in new money.
“Where are the priorities?” he said.
“There’s a different attitude up here,” Hamilton said. He said the rural-urban split has been more defined this session than in the past.
Hamilton did vote for some pieces of the budget, such as higher education and transportation funding.
Westrom said the budget did not turn out well for rural Minnesota or the state as a whole.
Westrom said the cigarette tax increase alone will be a significant incentive for consumers to travel across the state border.
“I didn’t think they’d want to overreach this far,” Westrom said of Democrats.
Ingebrigtsen said border cities especially will suffer under the Democrats’ plan because businesses and shoppers likely will head across state lines.
“It’s been a real big overreach,” Ingebrigtsen said of Democrats’ work this session.
“Elections have consequences,” he said.
Ingebrigtsen said he thinks Republicans will take back the House in the next election after the way this session played out.
Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.