Analysis: Election-year Politics Never Will Be Far From Minnesota Legislators

House last year

By Don Davis

Politics and legislating always are intertwined, but they could be even more so in the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Minnesota’s 201 state lawmakers return to St. Paul today for a shorter-than-normal 2014 legislative session (they must be done by May 19), with a relatively short must-do issues list.

Democratic House leaders, facing re-election this year, appear happy to meet for less than three months as they try to sidestep controversial issues that could hurt them at the polls. Republicans, never for long sessions, can use their minority status with little say in what happens in the Capitol to take issue with most Democratic initiatives.

Among Democrats, there is a sense of unease in the Capitol as the House and governor’s office are up for election this year (senators are safe from the ballot box for a couple more years). In the 2010 election, Republicans took both chambers of the Legislature (the Senate was GOP for the first time in 38 years) and then two years ago Democrats snatched them back.

As Democrats try to keep their hold on the House, Senate and governor’s office, all signs are that their leaders will try to avoid more tax increases this year at all costs, after a $2 billion hike a year ago. Republicans are trying to make hay with that increase, and by emphasizing that in 2013 Democrats also began the troubled MNsure health insurance marketplace.

Competition for rural and suburban House seats will be fierce since voters in many of those districts could opt for either party. So laying out a middle-of-the-road sales campaign could help Democrats.

In his sales effort aimed at some of those rural Minnesota districts, Democratic House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis sought a Forum News Service interview about his set of rural initiatives for the session.

Sure, it makes sense to ask a reporter who writes for newspapers that cover much of rural Minnesota in to talk. But it is not common: In at least 15 years, no speaker has delivered a similar invitation to discuss a session’s rural issues. And certainly no Minneapolis lawmaker has done that.

“I think we have a pretty good story to tell,” Thissen began, starting with what he sees as last year’s rural-issues progress.

With the House up for election, it appears to be up to Thissen to temper expectations from liberal DFL activists, many of whom want more taxes and more spending in a variety of areas. More taxes and spending could alienate voters who tend to be moderates.

The House and Senate transportation finance chairmen recently proposed two new taxes: a motor fuel sales tax and another one on crude oil transported through Minnesota. Thissen tried to squelch talk of either tax, at least for this year.

Thissen said he does not support taking up controversial issues such as copper-nickel and sand mining this session. And he said he wants more information before signing off on constructing a $63 million Senate office building, another controversial item.

House Democrats and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton like the idea of repealing some controversial taxes they approved last year, including one on farm implement repair and another on warehouse storage.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, agreed with Democrats that the state economy is improving, but disputed DFL claims that their policies are responsible.

“It wasn’t raising taxes that got us out of this situation,” Daudt said of economic woes.

Republicans say their policies in 2011 and 2012 helped businesses and, thus, the economy. Talk like that and attacking MNsure health make it clear the GOP will continue to run on issues that put the party in power four years ago: lower taxes and smaller government.

Many Republicans say Democrats are running away from what they did when in power last year, predicting they will try to downplay tax and spending increases. Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said that the opposite could happen. If Democrats begin to think they may lose House control, he said, they could begin passing all of their priority bills, regardless of the needs and consequences.