Speaker’s gavel a reminder

Nicholas Daudt and uncle

Nicholas Daudt stood at the ready, holding a large white oak gavel, awaiting his uncle’s orders.

When uncle Kurt Daudt told the 7-year-old, the gavel fell, notifying Minnesota House members that an action was official.

Opening day of the 2015 legislative session on Tuesday included some personal touches, like the elder Daudt — still young at 41 — giving his nephew the duty of pounding the new gavel minutes after becoming the youngest House speaker in decades. The Crown representative’s family had a front-row seat and his minister offered the opening prayer.

One thing that will endure, besides memories, is the gavel, made from an oak tree on the Daudt family farm, where the speaker lives.

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a woodworker, “offered to make the gavel for me…” Daudt said. “It came out just beautifully.”

Since Daudt will use the gavel every day the House is in session, he said, “it is a great reminder of where I came from and who I represent.”

When Daudt was elected speaker, his family gave him big hugs, but so did the woman who served as temporary House clerk Tuesday: Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton. She was Daudt’s English teacher.

Dayton looks for unity

Dayton gets directions

Uniting Minnesota is one of Gov. Mark Dayton’s goals as he begins his second, and final, term as the state’s chief executive.

“What helps some Minnesotans usually helps all of us,” Dayton said in his Monday inaugural address to about 400 invited guests. “So let’s cheer each other’s successes, not resent them.”

The governor, who at 67 has said he will not run again, complained that Minnesotans divide themselves up into camps: “There’s greater Minnesota against the metro area. Central cities vs. suburbs.  Urban schools against rural districts. East metro vs. west metro. Cities, counties and townships compared to other cities, counties and townships.”

The former U.S. senator, state auditor and economic development commissioner called for state residents to become “one Minnesota.”

“Someone always believes that someone else is getting a better deal,” Dayton said in his speech at St. Paul’s Landmark Center. “Those rivalries are not going to disappear. However, they cannot be permitted to blind us to the larger truth that we are all one Minnesota.”

The Democratic governor’s comments came a day before Republicans take control of the state House The GOP credits its November ballot box win in a large part to a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Dayton ignoring rural needs the last two years.

Dayton did not specifically mention the GOP taking over the House, but encouraged policymakers to look at things his way: “What binds us together is much more important than what pulls us apart.”

“Economic growth in one area pays for property tax relief in another,” Dayton added. “Good farm prices in southern Minnesota boost sales and revenues in metro stores. Shops in Duluth do better when the Range is at full production. “

Republican leaders did not attend the inaugural. The man to become House speaker today, Rep. Kurt Daudt of Crown, said he was in a couple of long-scheduled fundraisers before during the ceremony. He said he tried to call Dayton Monday morning to congratulate him and attempted to connect with him after the inaugural.

Daudt said that he and Dayton have a good relationship, but said his colleagues are concerned about rural Minnesota.

“We are very sincere that rural Minnesota was left behind,” Daudt said.

While GOP leaders were absent, so was Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, who was interviewing potential Senate employees.

Monday’s inaugural, which lasted less than an hour, was an all-Democratic affair.

Along with Dayton, new Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and just-elected Secretary of State Steve Simon were sworn in. Also taking oaths were Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto, both starting their third terms.

Smith, a former Dayton chief of staff, replaces Yvonne Prettner Solon, who opted not to seek re-election.

Simon, a Hopkins resident, served 10 years in the Minnesota House before winning his first statewide office. He takes over from Democrat Mark Ritchie, who decided not to run again.

The new secretary of state, who appeared emotional when talking about voting rights, promised to make it easier for Minnesotans to vote.

“As secretary of state, I’ll work with anyone, of any political affiliation, from any part of our state to secure and strengthen our right to vote in Minnesota, to help make our democracy worthy of our best traditions,” Simon said.

Dayton emphasized education, but like most governors in inaugural addresses, offered no specific proposals.

He long has said that he wants to increase education spending in every state budget while he is in office. However, he said, he will not seek more money just to do the same things now happening in schools.

Legislators last year funded all-day, every-day kindergarten and Dayton said he wants more early child programs.

“Additionally, some children’s needs go beyond early education,” Dayton said. “They must be better-protected from neglect and abuse.”

He added: “I will dedicate the next four years to regaining our state’s position as a national and global leader in education excellence.”

Smith also promoted education, crediting a good school system for Minnesota inventions from Bisquick to Twister, from water skies to supercomputers.

“The heart of invention beats in every corner of our state, from the apartment buildings in Cedar Riverside to the farms and small towns across Minnesota,” Smith said. “Let’s make sure these inventors and creative people have the tools they need to make their ideas fly.”

Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea gave the oath to Dayton, Simon and Swanson, while Dayton appointee Justice David Lillehaug swore in Otto and Smith. Justice Alan Page was master of ceremonies.

Elderly, disabled care top priorities

Schomacker

This is one of a series of stories previewing the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. It concentrates on Republicans’ policy initiatives as they will retake control of the House. The Senate and governor’s office remain in Democratic control.

The top priority for many rural Minnesota legislators is to improve state funding sent to elderly and disabled care programs.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, puts that in his top three priorities — along with transportation and education — and most rural members agree.

Not only are such programs good for the people they serve, but lawmakers say nursing homes and other care programs are among the biggest businesses in many rural communities.

Rural nursing homes, which are closing in increasing numbers, often serve as training locations for nurses, Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said. Once trained, nurses leave for bigger cities and more money.

Schomacker, who will head the House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, said a priority should be changing that trend.

“We are greatly underfunding these programs,” Schomacker said of nursing homes and other programs for the disabled and elderly.

Rural programs are especially hurting, many legislators said, because they receive far less money than those in the Twin Cities.

“A senior is a senior in Minnesota,” Schomacker said.

Finding money for the elderly and disabled could be difficult.

“It’s a priority for everybody until it is time to write the check,” Schomacker said.

While legislative leaders of both parties and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton agree no general tax increase will be needed next year, there is talk, even from some generally anti-tax Republicans, that higher taxes could be needed to help nursing homes.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, proposes several initiatives to improve funding by increases in taxes.

For elderly and disabled care provided in the home, he suggests a Minnesota tax that would kick in above the level of federal Social Security tax. This year, that would be above $117,000.

Although he said that he does not expect that idea to pass as he proposes it, he wants it to begin a conversation about funding the programs. “It is a good starting point for starting discussions.”

Nursing homes did not want to be included in the bill for home-bound care and plan to offer their own plan to boost state funding.

The Long Term Care Imperative is looking to reform funding next session for nursing homes, assisted living communities and home-and-community-based services that serve the elderly.

A spokeswoman said the group is in the final stages of preparing its plan, which not only would boost funding but improve quality of care.

Rural legislators have varying stories about nursing homes in their areas, from districts that have experienced homes closing to those where nursing home administrators report they are in financial trouble and barely able to stay open. The problem is much less in the Twin Cities.

“If legislators would take the time and visit with the individuals (residents) from the nursing homes … they would understand they have been underserved,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.

Higher taxes? Take a guess

Drazkowski

This is one of a series of stories previewing the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. It concentrates on Republicans’ policy initiatives as they will retake control of the House. The Senate and governor’s office remain in Democratic control.

Let’s face it: What most Minnesotans want to know about the upcoming legislative session is whether lawmakers will raise their taxes.

The answer is a resounding maybe.

In most years, Republicans could be expected to reject any tax increase proposal. But some in the GOP, including a leader or two, say there could be tax increases for priority items such as nursing homes and transportation. Democrats in general are much more open to raising taxes to fund new or expanded programs.

“I don’t think this is the time of year you rule out taxes,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said. “This is the time you throw all the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.”

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has left the door open, if only slightly, for new tax revenues. Others, however, have securely locked that door.

“Absolutely no new taxes,” Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said.

All of that talk comes at a time when Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders say no general tax increase is needed in 2015.

Nornes promotes the type of revenue increases generally favored by Republicans: Find ways businesses can make more money, allowing the companies to pay more taxes, along with employees who are earning higher wages.

“If we can increase tax revenue without increasing taxes, by just increasing productivity and the economy, that would be the hope that we all have,” Nornes said. “It is kind of a pretty delicate procedure.”

Daudt agreed with Nornes that improving the economy can help. Putting more money in Minnesotans’ pockets, he said, “solves Minnesota’s problems.”

Nornes added: “We have raised so many taxes in the last two years that I think people are fed up.”

Republicans campaigned before the November election against the $2 billion tax increase approved by Dayton and his Democratic legislative colleagues when the DFL controlled the Legislature and governor’s office the past two years.

Some Republicans could consider a tax increase as a top priority. For Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, that exception would be nursing homes.

“At least on the nursing homes, I would support some kind of an increase of some form of tax or revenue increase,” Anderson said. “I think it is that serious out here in rural Minnesota.”

Republicans are talking less this year about tax reductions than in the past, but farm property taxes may be an exception.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa plans to offer a plan that would remove farm property taxes for new school and local government buildings.

Drazkowski said that he will talk to members of the Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division that he leads before coming out with a final plan. The beginnings of the plan were hatched when he talked to some southern Minnesota farmers who said they paid $55 an acre for local government building projects.

“That’s a lot of money when you begin to add up the cost of those property taxes,” he said, adding that the building taxes were not the only items farmers pay.

During his re-election campaign, Dayton said that he leaned against providing special relief for farmers. He said that to so would force other property owners to pay more; to make that change, he said, would take a reform of the entire property tax system.

Drazkowski promised that his committee will hold listening sessions about his and other property tax plans, perhaps including some away from St. Paul.

His committee also will govern state aids paid to local governments, and if he has his way things will change.

Local Government Aid, a program for cities, mostly goes to Minneapolis, St. Paul and greater Minnesota cities. For the most part, suburbs get little if any LGA.

Drazkowski and other Republicans say the program, set up to help cities with little property that can be taxed, should return to its original concept, to pay for fundamental services such as public safety. He said cities like St. Paul and Minneapolis have plenty of property to tax, so do not need LGA.

“Why are we giving Minneapolis $76 million Local Government Aid,” the chairman-to-be asked. “I don’t know.”

While Drazkowski may want to eliminate some cities from the LGA list, and make other changes, he also realizes that the Republican-controlled House cannot dictate such things. “We also have to remember we have got a Democratic Senate and a Democratic governor.”

Republicans prepare new rural agenda

Daudt, Peppin

This is one of a series of stories previewing the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. It concentrates on Republicans’ policy initiatives as they retake control of the House. The Senate and governor’s office remain in Democratic control.

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House the next two years make it abundantly clear they will focus on rural Minnesota when the legislative session starts Jan. 6.

Or, as they prefer to say, GOP members will drop what they call a Minneapolis-St. Paul focus they claim has been the norm under Democratic control.

“House Republicans understand all of Minnesota matters — not just one part of the state or another — and we are proud to bring those priorities forward over the next two years,” majority leader-elect Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

“I think they are going to get a fair deal this time,” Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said about rural Minnesotans.

Several new House committees are aimed at greater Minnesota issues, such as two dealing with agriculture and the newly minted Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

Republicans say it is time for rural constituents to catch up with their urban cousins after two years in which Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. But the House will not be able to “catch up” by itself, since Democrats retain control of the Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton was re-elected in November.

“We are just kind of bringing the state government back into balance,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said.

Minnesotans can expect to see an emphasis on issues of particular interest to greater Minnesota residents, such as increasing aid for nursing homes and other elderly and disabled care programs, farm issues and road construction.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has had little time to craft policy priorities as he reorganized the House, but when he has time for broad stroke comments, he emphasizes the need to look at rural issues.

While Dayton will present his budget proposal first, by Jan. 27, it technically is Daudt’s chamber that must first pass a two-year budget expected to top $40 billion. When that comes in March or April, Minnesotans will have an idea about what helping out greater Minnesota really means to GOP leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said there are general agreements among Dayton, House leaders and Senate leaders. For instance, rural manufacturers and other businesses are having trouble finding qualified workers and then getting housing for them, something all sides say must be addressed.

“There is a critical problem,” Bakk said of rural housing.

“It costs about the same to build a housing unit, no matter where you build in the state,” the former carpenter said, but it is much easier to afford in the Twin Cities thanks to higher wages. “It seems like some kind of state bridge to make those projects work is going to be required.”

It is not just the House Republican majority that wants to help greater Minnesota, he said.

“I’m a rural guy,” Bakk said. “I understand the challenges that exist in rural Minnesota. I think my colleagues in the Twin Cities want a strong rural Minnesota, too, but they don’t understand the extent of the problem.”

In the House, a rural lawmaker who will be one of three assistant minority leaders said that he and his fellow Democrats have done well for rural Minnesotans in the past two years, but he appeared happy that the new GOP leadership is talking about doing more.

“I think there is a somewhat disconnect between the urban and the rural, probably in both parties,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “Making sure the positive momentum we saw in greater Minnesota continues is my No. 1 goal.”

But Marquart worries that the House could pass bills that would cut state payments to local governments, thus forcing up property taxes.

Marquart said he hopes Republicans agree with three of his rural priorities: improving early-childhood education, funding more school construction and lowering farm property taxes.

For Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the coming session looks like it could be much better than the last two years, when agriculture funding was decided in a committee with an environmentalist as chairwoman.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” Hamilton said of his chairmanship of the Agriculture Finance Committee. “I am ready to go to work.”

Hamilton said one of his top priorities is finding workers to fill thousands of vacant agriculture-related jobs. “There is a huge shortage of agriculture professionals.”

Part of the solution, he said, is to encourage the state’s universities and colleges to train more high school ag teachers. The state also could support a variety of organizations that promote farming to young people, he added.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said that he fears many young people do not realize how technically advanced agriculture is today.

“Agriculture is really changing, becoming really advanced,” said Anderson, who will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee. “We need more training and that is where it all starts.”

Also, Hamilton said, the University of Minnesota needs to increase spending on crop and livestock disease research. “It is an absolute must that we invest in more research at the University of Minnesota.”

Hamilton said money to support more ag spending could come from rethinking budget priorities, and freeing some money now going to other programs.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that another way to help Minnesota is to encourage people to leave the Twin Cities for rural areas. The state can help convince them “there is a way to earn a living in greater Minnesota,” Nornes added.

Many Minnesotans do not realize jobs are available in rural areas, he said.

Anderson said he expects rural bills to be bipartisan. “I think there is a realization that agriculture is important to the state economically.”

He said that he expects the issue of labeling products as being genetically modified will come up. He suggests turning it around and labeling food that has not been genetically modified.

“I am kind of interested in hearing the arguments,” Anderson said of the controversial topic. “I don’t have anything to hide.”

Bakk said that rural lawmakers are the best to balance spending statewide.

“We understand the entire state better,” Bakk said. “We live in St. Paul almost six months of the year. … I think I have a pretty good sense of what is going on around the Twin Cities. Because I live in rural Minnesota, I also understand what is going on out there. So I think we bring a more global view of the state.”

Democratic doubts remain as Daudt prepares to lead Minnesota House

Daudt

Memories of 2011 remain fresh for Mark Dayton.

That was when Dayton, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, faced a conservative Republican Legislature and as time ran out the two sides could not agree on a state budget, throwing Minnesota into a three-week government shutdown. While no one is predicting another shutdown in 2015 as legislators and Dayton work to write a two-year state budget, it is obvious the shutdown haunts the governor as he prepares for his second term in office.

In 2011, both chambers of the Legislature were Republican and the GOP was trying to take advantage of the party’s unusual power. In 2015, the Senate is in Democrats’ hands, as is the governor’s office, while the House is back in Republican control after two years in the minority.

Dayton and the Senate majority likely will agree on most major issues and spending decisions in 2015, but it will take House Republican approval to get things done. And leading the House as speaker will be Republican Kurt Daudt of Crown, a third-term representative considered a nice and moderate guy, but who calls himself as conservative as most in his caucus.

When asked if he trusts Daudt, Dayton responded quickly: “I have no reason not to.”

But he immediately added that he had a good relationship with Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, speaker during the shutdown. The governor recalled that things went south in session-ending negotiations when the two sides could not agree on a budget.

“I knew that he was captive of his extreme right-wing caucus that was so inflexible … that if he would agree to something reasonable that he would not be speaker an hour later,” Dayton said of Zellers.

Applying that experience to budget talks next year, Dayton said that success rests on whether “Rep. Daudt has the latitude and authorization to agree to or not.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the problem is that Republicans long ago established an executive council that can control a speaker.

“I do think he sincerely wants to have a smooth session,” Bakk said of Daudt.

The incoming speaker himself said that he understands negotiations mean giving up something.

“We aren’t going to get everything we want,” Daudt said.

The amount of freedom the executive council gives Daudt could determine the session’s success, Bakk said, adding that he has worked well with Daudt in recent years.

“I don’t know the extent they are going to empower him,” Bakk said. “Is the Kurt Daudt I know the one I will negotiate with or will he bring some baggage with him?”

In a recent interview, Daudt did not address the executive council, but said he has good relationships with Dayton and legislative leaders, including outgoing Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, who will be House minority leader.

The speaker-designate said that he believes the person who will be Democrats’ key negotiator, Dayton, has the best interest of Minnesota at heart and is trustworthy.

However, Daudt added, “he has always been unpredictable.”

Daudt said that while he knows Bakk well, he needs to learn more about Dayton.

As for a shutdown, Daudt echoes comments from many other lawmakers: “We are in a completely different situation.”

That situation become known earlier this month when state officials announced a $1 billion surplus, although they also said there really was little surplus because inflation would eat up that $1 billion.

A surplus “helps our relationship,” Daudt said.

Still, there will be tension.

While Dayton blamed what he calls the inflexibility of Republicans to negotiate for the 2011 budget stalemate, Daudt recalled things differently in his first year in the House. He said that the governor did not tell Republicans just where he stood on many budget items, and Dayton’s commissioners were not empowered to speak for him during budget meetings.

One of the Democrats’ leaders had only good things to say about Daudt.

“He was fair on the House floor,” Assistant Minority Leader-elect Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “He gave spirited speeches and debate, but he was never personal. … I think he has a good track record.”

One of Daudt’s assistants, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, called him “an exceptionally talented young man.”

“He has a lot of support throughout the caucus,” Torkelson added.

Veteran Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said Daudt and other leaders will work well as Republicans dealing with Democrats who control the Senate and governor’s office. “We know the situation; we need to work with both the Senate and the governor’s office.”

The 2011 shutdown may have been caused by “a few people coming in with more horsepower than they needed,” he said.

“That was probably the most unusual session I have been through,” Nornes said. “We learned from that.”

The incoming speaker, at 41 the youngest in that position since the 1930s, approaches things a bit differently than some of his colleagues.

Daudt said would like to see legislators stop presenting solutions, in the form of bills, before problems are thoroughly vetted by legislative committees. His idea is to come into session to examine problems, then as information is gleaned, solutions can be discussed and bills written.

As it is, he said, many legislators introduce bills as soon as the Legislature begins work.

Whether talking about how to approach problems or budget negotiations, Daudt indicates he is optimistic about the legislative session to begin at noon Jan. 6.

“In the end, we will get it done,” he promised, and without a shutdown.

Political chatter: 2012 ag controversy continues with committee assignments

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House next year angered Democrats by leaving a strong environmentalist off the environmental committee.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, released a list of committee members Thursday night, and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee list did not include Rep. Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis. She has served on the committee each of her 14 terms in the House, earning a reputation of detailed-oriented environmentalist.

“I am deeply disappointed that Speaker-designate Daudt has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to accept the individual the minority caucus has designated as its lead on a Minnesota House committee,” current Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “So much for the ‘balanced approach’ the Republicans touted repeatedly during the campaign.”

Two years ago, when Democrats took control of the House, Thissen put Wagenius in charge of an environment and agriculture committee, angering rural Republican who said Wagenius is against traditional farming and that putting the subjects together reduces the importance of agriculture.

Republicans gained control of the House in last month’s election, and established several rural-oriented committees. Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake will be chairman of the Agriculture Finance Committee, while Rep. Paul Anderson of Starbuck will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee.

Daudt’s office said little about the decision, but issued a statement from him: “We have put together a committee structure that is balanced and we look forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on problems Minnesotans care about.”

Thissen said Wagenius’ voice is important for the committee.

“Just because House Republicans don’t take climate change or protecting Minnesota’s water and air seriously doesn’t mean that the majority of Minnesotans agree with them,” Thissen said. “Rep. Jean Wagenius is a woman of great integrity who would bring much needed experience to the important work of the environment committee.”

Democrats’ rural problems two years ago were not limited to the Wagenius chairmanship. They also took heat by making Minneapolis’ Thissen speaker and Erin Murphy of St. Paul majority leader, skipping over Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth. He had run to give a rural balance to leadership; next year he will be an assistant minority leader after 10 rural seats flipped from Democrat to Republican in the November vote.

Bachman doesn’t go quietly

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann surprised no one as she exited Congress for the unknown.

The Republican firebrand was critical of Democratic President Barack Obama to his face at a White House holiday party, she weaved critical remarks around thank-yous in her final floor speech and she sent an email blasting her own party’s congressional leaders.

“Speaker John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and the GOP leadership cut a deal with the Obama Democrats to approve another staggering $1.1 trillion in new spending,” she wrote in an email from her political action committee. “What happened to the Republican commitment to fight the reckless Obama agenda, balance the budget and save our country?”

She added: “Unfortunately, I can’t say I am surprised. Dismayed, disappointed and angry — but not surprised.”

Franken for Hillary

Hillary Clinton has the support of both of Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. senators.

Sen. Al Franken told MSNBC that he is in the Clinton camp. Amy Klobuchar already expressed her support, despite talk that she could be a presidential candidate herself.

Clinton has not announced she is running in 2016, but she is expected to and is considered the leading Democratic candidate, by far.

“I think that Hillary would make a great president,” Franken said in the MSNBC interview.

“I think that I’m ready for Hillary,” he said. “I mean, I think that we’ve not had someone this experienced, this tough, and she’s very, very impressive.”

 Solid agreement already

Minnesota’s legislative leaders and governor are feeling out each other to find out what to expect in the coming legislative session, but they already agree on one thing.

“We are going to the last day,” House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, predicted.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he, too, thinks legislators will use every day until the constitutional deadline to adjourn. He said all deadlines for the session will be set with that date in mind.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton probably would not argue. He often has said that the nature of a Legislature is to use all of the available time.

The 2015 session begins at noon Jan. 6. And while it must end by May 18, Dayton could call legislators back into session if they do not complete a budget or new issues arise. However, Dayton has shown a reluctance to call special sessions.

Seifert to lobby

Former state Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, will lobby for greater Minnesota issues in the 2015 Minnesota Legislature.

He has joined the Flaherty and Hood law firm, which represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and several cities that belong to that group.

Seifert has lost two campaigns for governor, including a Republican primary loss this year in which he ran as the only greater Minnesota candidate.

Franken in Uber fight

The fast-growing Uber transportation service and U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota are engaged in a privacy battle.

Franken, an outspoken privacy advocate and chairman of a subcommittee on the subject, has complained about Uber’s data collection practices. He also has wondered whether Uber misuses consumer data.

“I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes the ability to control who is getting your personal location information and who it’s being shared with,” Franken said. “I recently pressed Uber to explain the scope, transparency and enforceability of their privacy policies. While I’m pleased that they replied to my letter, I am concerned about the surprising lack of detail in their response.”

Uber’s response indicated that the company that connects riders with drivers for hire has disciplined its workers who broke its privacy policy.

Part of the problem, as Franken explains it, is that the global positioning system Uber uses allows the new company to track riders’ locations.

Inflation eats away surplus

Lots of charts

The Minnesota state budget surplus sits at $1 billion, but not really.

While state officials said a Thursday economic and budget report was good news, Minnesota’s top finance official said that inflation will eat up what many called a surplus. Still, political leaders agreed that the added money, unlike deficits they often have been dealt, will make budgeting easier when legislators return to St. Paul Jan. 6 and that no overall tax increase will be needed.

“Inflation is essentially everywhere,” Commissioner Jim Schowalter said of the state budget, and the $1 billion “surplus” mostly will be used to counteract it in the state’s two-year budget that begins next July 1.

“Yes, if you add in inflation, it evens out,” his boss, Gov. Mark Dayton, said.

However, Dayton and most other political leaders said Thursday’s report was good news and the governor insisted there is a surplus.

After raising taxes more than $2 billion in 2013, Dayton said that he sees no need for a general tax increase. On the other hand, the Democratic governor said that some type of new revenue is needed to inject needed money into road and bridge budgets.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that he does not think higher taxes will be needed for transportation, although all ways to increase transportation funding “are on the table.”

Dayton said that what he called a “surplus” could help fund some child care tax credits, increased broadband facilities across greater Minnesota and other needs.

As soon as the $1 billion surplus was announced, groups ranging from the University of Minnesota to those representing nursing homes said they need some of that money.

Part of the $1 billion is $373 million that is not being spent in the current budget and can be spent in the next two years. State law automatically requires another $183 million to remain in the reserve and not be folded into the next budget.

The news gives Dayton a benchmark as his administration works on a budget proposal that he plans to give legislators Jan. 27. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate will draft their own budget plans, most likely based on the Dayton budget, after another revenue report in late February or early March. Dayton will tweak his budget after that report.

Thursday’s report, known as a budget forecast, takes a look at the national and state economies and predicts how much is available to spend on state programs.

The state general fund budget has grown from $31.5 billion in 2006-2007 to $40 billion now. It is expected to top $40 billion for the two years beginning next July 1, a figure state lawmakers and the governor will work out in the legislative session that begins Jan. 6.

The general fund budget is that part of state spending funded by Minnesota taxpayers. When federal and other funds are included, the state’s total spending can be twice the state-funded total.

While Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature and governor’s office the past two years, were celebrating Thursday’s report as good news, Republicans had their doubts.

Daudt said that the state is bringing in more money, but Minnesotans’ personal budgets do not appear to be improving.

The Minnesota economy is closely tied to national trends, State Economist Laura Kalambokidis said. That includes a worse-than-expected housing market, which affects industries across greater Minnesota such as lumber and window makers.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that he hopes the budget cushion announced Thursday gives lawmakers a chance to work on one of greater Minnesota’s most pressing issues: housing.

Industries located in communities from Roseau in the north to Jackson in the south say they have jobs available, but need housing for workers, and in many cases potential workers need more training.

Most of the state’s key political leaders specifically said after Thursday’s budget forecast that it means no overall tax increase will be needed. However, Dayton emphasized what he sees as the need to raise revenue for transportation.

While he said he is open to ideas about how to raise that revenue, one possibility he has discussed would be to add a tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. The current gas tax is added at the pumps.

Daudt, whose Republican candidates this fall campaigned on improving roads and bridges, said he is not convinced higher taxes are needed. He and other Republicans have said they prefer to cut other state programs that may not be needed and transfer those funds to transportation.

In general, state political leaders were waiting for the budget forecast to draw up specific proposals.

Besides transportation, Dayton specifically mentioned the need to fund expansion of high-speed Internet, known as broadband, across the state.

Broadband, he said, is “crucial for economic development over the state.”

Dayton and legislators this year approved a down payment for improving broadband access, but some projections indicate that billions of dollars more are needed to bring greater Minnesota to the same level as the Twin Cities.

 Key budget numbers

in next two-year budget

$1.037 billion: More money expected than earlier projections

$412 million: Lower revenues expected than earlier prediction

$502 million: Expected drop in overall state spending

$443 million: Less spending needed than expected in health programs

$2 billion: Expected gain in individual income tax receipts

$598 million: Expected increase in sales tax collections

Bakk

Dayton

Daudt

State economist

Rural votes decide House control

New House GOP majority

By Charley Shaw and Don Davis

Rod Hamilton summarized the Republican takeover of the Minnesota House: “This election should be a wakeup call to all state leaders! Do not turn your back on greater Minnesota!!”

Indeed, the Mountain Lake Republican legislator’s tweet pointed out, 10 of 11 House seats Republicans picked up from Democrats came from outside of the Twin Cities.

The GOP rural performance gave the party a say in state policy after Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office the past two years. Voters Tuesday retained Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, while the Democrat-controlled Senate was not up for election.

With the Tuesday election, it appears Republicans will control the House by a 72-62 tally after Democrats held a 73-61 edge for two years. However, one race is headed toward a mandatory recount.

Republicans and Dayton agreed on Wednesday that they did not want gridlock like occurred when Republicans controlled the Legislature and a newly elected Dayton was in the governor’s office in 2011. That was when state government shut down for three weeks as the two sides could not agree on a budget. Dayton and House Republicans said Wednesday they would give no promise that will not happen again next year.

If Republicans do not want to compromise, Dayton said, “it’s a prescription to gridlock unless we rise above it.”

House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt of Crown, one of at least two people running for speaker on Friday, said that cooperation “is up to the Democrats.”

There was plenty of talk about hope among those headed to the Capitol when the new Legislature convenes Jan. 6.

“I’m excited about working with a good two-party system,” Rep.-Elect Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said as Republicans celebrated their House majority.

He learned that he beat Democratic Rep. Mary Sawatzky just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, who said that in her first term “we made great strides across the board in carrying for people.”

In a story heard often, the race between Baker and Sawatzky had been the target of a massive advertising blitz by the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as by outside political action groups that had filled voters’ mailboxes with fliers during the campaign season.

Like many Republicans who won Tuesday, Baker said he ran for office because he believed that in the past two years the state produced a “bad tax policy” that was harming private sector job growth and there were “too many unfunded mandates in public schools.”

Daudt said Republicans won in greater Minnesota because Democrats ignored the area outside of the Twin Cities.

“We are not going to forget about any part of the state, especially rural Minnesota,” said Daudt, who lives on a farm north of the Twin Cities.

But House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said that his party has taken care of rural Minnesota.

“If you look at the objective facts, I think we did quite well for greater Minnesota,” Thissen said, citing additional funding for nursing home, education and broadband.

The biggest factor in losing the House majority, the speaker said, was low turnout. Just half of Minnesota’s voters cast ballots Tuesday, with the average in recent non-presidential years about 60 percent. When turnout is low, it generally is because Democrats stay home.

“We need to really think from our party perspective about what we missed in some of those races this year,” Thissen said.

Twenty-six new members (or those returning after an absence) will be sworn in on when the 2015 session convenes; all but five are Republican.

Most of the 11 Democratic incumbents who lost Tuesday were first-termers, but veterans ousted included greater Minnesota Democratic veteran Reps. John Ward of Baxter, Andrew Falk of Murdock and Patti Fritz of Faribault.

DFLers held onto all but one of several competitive seats in the Twin Cities suburbs that they had picked up in 2012. The exception was House District 56B where Rep. Will Morgan, D-Burnsville, lost to Republican businesswoman Roz Peterson of Lakeville.

Like in rural Minnesota, parts of the Twin Cities likely will continue to be a battleground as many contests were decided by slim margins, notably House District 48A where Rep. Yvonne Selcer, D-Minnetonka, awaits an automatic recount in the race that shows she beat former GOP Rep. Kirk Stensrud by 36 votes.

Among crucial House races:

2A: Republican Dave Hancock of Bemidji was first elected to the House in 2010 and served one term before he was defeated in 2012 by Rep. Roger Erickson, D-Baudette. Hancock, who co-owned a tire and automotive business for many years, won his seat back on Tuesday in a rematch by 4.87 percentage points. The district was predictably difficult for DFLers, having been won in 2012 by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and on Tuesday by GOP 8th Congressional District candidate Stewart Mills.

10A: Four-term DFL House member John Ward of Baxter, who had managed to win decisive re-elections in previous years despite the Republican tilt to his district, met his match against Republican Josh Heintzeman of Nisswa. Ward won in 2010 by 15 points despite that year’s GOP wave that sent many DFLers in greater Minnesota packing. Heintzeman runs a log construction business.

10B: The victor of one of the DFL’s biggest upsets in 2012, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, knew he had a big target on his back in his rematch with Republican farmer from Aitkin, Dale Lueck. Radinovich won the first contest by a mere 1.47 points in a district that favored GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by 9 points, but succumbed to Lueck on Tuesday by 3.86 points.

11B: Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, has had one of the most volatile electoral rides of any lawmaker in recent memory. Faust met his second re-election defeat on Tuesday in his east-central Minnesota district that also includes Mora and Pine City. Faust was first elected in 2006 on his second try to unseat former GOP Rep. Judy Soderstrom. He lost his seat in the subsequent 2010 election only for voters to send him back to St. Paul in 2012. After one term back in the House, Faust, a Lutheran minister, lost the swing district to Republican Jason Rarick, an electrical contractor from Pine City.

12A: Jeff Backer, a businessman and former mayor of Browns Valley, successfully won the seat from first-term Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake. McNamar had beaten his Republican opponent in 2012 points with an Independence Party candidate getting 6.14 percent of the vote.

14B: Jim Knoblach, who previously served six terms in the House and is a former Ways and Means Committee chairman, will return to the House. Knoblach, who retired from the House in 2006 to run unsuccessfully for Congress, won back his House seat against first-term DFL incumbent Zach Dorholt by 0.61 point, barely exceeding the threshold required to avoid an automatic recount.

17A: Rep. Andrew Falk, D-Murdock, saw his bid for a fourth term representing western Minnesota counties of Swift, Chippewa and Renville Counties upended by Tim Miller. The race was a rematch from 2012 when Falk beat Miller by a 7.9-point margin. Miller, a consultant from Prinsburg, eased past Falk on Tuesday by 10.9 points. Falk, a farmer, had worked extensively on agriculture and renewable issues in the House.

17B: Throughout Tuesday night, the race between Rep. Mary Sawatzky, D-Willmar, and her Republican challenger Dave Baker was agonizingly close. At times the secretary of state’s website showed a difference of less than a quarter of 1 percent. In the end, Baker, a hospitality business owner from Willmar, unseated the first-termer Sawatzky in a district that has swung back-and-forth since veteran DFLer Al Juhnke was upset in 2010.

24B: Rep. Patti Fritz, D-Faribault, lost her bid for a sixth term. Fritz, a nurse and leading advocate for anti-abortion issues that split the House DFL caucus, had won close elections before. This was another close contest. But Fritz was on the losing side of a race decided by 1.87 percentage points in favor of first-time candidate Brian Daniels. Daniels is a businessman and brother of Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, who ran unopposed this year.

27A: Republican challenger Peggy Bennett won big on Tuesday. The Albert Lea elementary school teacher beat first-term Democratic incumbent Shannon Savick of Wells by 13 points, with the wild-card factor that Independence Party candidate Thomas Keith Price of Alden garnered 6.9 percent of the vote. Democrats lost the House seat despite winning 27A in the governor’s, Congressional and U.S. Senate races. The southern Minnesota district has flipped between Republicans and Democrats in the last three House elections.

48A: Before Democrats’ hopes of holding onto control of the state House were dashed in greater Minnesota, victories in competitive districts in the Twin Cities suburbs provided them with early optimism on Tuesday night. Things have preliminarily gone the DFL’s way in 48A where Rep. Yvonne Selcer, D-Minnetonka, won by 36 votes, an outcome so slim that state law requires an automatic recount. Assuming the recount doesn’t change things, Selcer, a former Hopkins school board chairwoman, will have won a second term by defeating the seat’s former GOP incumbent Kirk Stensrud, whom she beat in 2012 by 202 votes, or 0.82 percentage point.

56B: Although the Twin Cities suburbs are loaded with swing districts, this Burnsville/Lakeville district was the only GOP pickup on Tuesday. Commercial realtor and Lakeville school board chairwoman Roz Peterson won a rematch with Rep. Will Morgan, D-Burnsville, from the race she lost two years ago by 0.8 percentage point. The race was one of that year’s marquee DFL pickups in the Twin Cities area, and Peterson began campaigning for a rematch shortly afterwards. On Tuesday she unseated Morgan, a Burnsville High School physics teacher, by 8.16 points. Morgan had served two terms in the House from 2007 to 2011, before himself being defeated and then regaining his seat in 2012.

Republicans count on election to gain voice in House

House

By Charley Shaw

Republicans have been shut out of power in the Minnesota state Capitol for two years, and in next week’s elections are seeking to regain some of their lost clout by winning back control of the state House.

All 134 seats in the currently Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party-controlled House will be on Tuesday’s ballot, while the similarly DFL-dominated state Senate isn’t up for election until 2016. If DFL incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton, who leads Republican rival Jeff Johnson in polls and fundraising, wins next week, then the outcome in House races would be all the more crucial for Republicans’ ability to influence state policy for the next two years.

“For the last year-and-a half,” University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said, “folks in the business community and Republican circles were very clear that they had to break up the DFL monopoly and that their best option for doing that was to win the House.”

House Republicans need a net gain of seven seats to win back the majority they held for two years, until the 2012 election.

Control of the House has swung like a pendulum in recent elections. Republicans in 2010 swept into power in the midst of that year’s national wave of GOP victories. DFLers in 2012 won back the majority and established control of both the Legislature and governor’s office for the first time since 1990.

The outcome of this year’s House and governor’s races will set the stage for the 2015 legislative session that convenes Jan. 6. Lawmakers will have as their main item of business passing a budget for the next two years. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have also signaled that transportation funding needs to be addressed, among other issues.

After winning several close elections in greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs in 2012, DFLers this year have several tough seats to defend in their bid to keep control of the House.

There are nine House DFLers who represent districts where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012, giving Republicans hope.

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz noted that expected lower voter turnout this year compared to the 2012 presidential election poses another challenge for DFLers.

“They’re defending a lot of, let’s say, marginal seats in a year when they are not going to have the pull of a presidential election and a popular president to drive turnout,” Schultz said.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that turnout will be a key factor in determining whether his caucus retains the majority.

“There are a lot of races that are very close,” Thissen said. “It really is going to depend on who is going to show up on Election Day.”

While on the campaign trail, Thissen has highlighted DFL accomplishments in education. “Our education investments are clearly the top thing we’re talking about: All-day kindergarten, college tuition freeze and early childhood education investments.”

Among accomplishments related to Greater Minnesota, Thissen cited property tax relief and reducing the funding disparities between Greater Minnesota and Twin Cities-area school districts.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, however, disputed the numbers cited by DFLers that indicate improvements on property taxes and regional equity in school funding. He also criticized the health insurance exchange called MNSure among other policies supported by DFLers.

“Everything the Democrats have done from MNSure to unionizing daycares to increasing taxes has taken money out of the pockets and budgets of Minnesota families,” Daudt said.

Given another two years in the majority, Thissen said, transportation will be a major issue on the House’s agenda. “It’s going to be transportation that’s going to be the premier issue coming next year. It’s going to be roads and bridges, but also transit, and particularly transit in Greater Minnesota, which Republicans seem to want to entirely ignore.”

Daudt also said transportation will be a big issue if his side wins control of the House. Additionally, he said Republicans would try to improve the state’s business climate.

“We see every day that great Minnesota companies, while they aren’t leaving the state of Minnesota, when they grow, they grow in another state because our climate isn’t competitive,” Daudt said.

Whoever wins control of the House next Tuesday, it won’t have come cheap. In addition to spending by individual candidates’ campaigns, finance reports released Tuesday show independent groups have already poured $6.8 million into House contests.

Republicans look for opening

House GOP candidates

By Don Davis

Minnesota Republicans are looking for any opportunity to get a foothold in a state government dominated by Democrats.

Sen. Scott Newman announced Thursday that he is seeking to upset two-term Democratic Attorney General Lori Swanson and become the first Republican to hold the office in 43 years. The announcement means Republicans now have challengers for every statewide office.

A few minutes later, about 60 Republican state legislative candidates gathered on the Capitol steps, where their leader proclaimed that the GOP is ready to retake control of the House chamber after losing it two years ago.

And today, Republicans gather in Rochester for a two-day state convention that should produce endorsed U.S. Senate and governor candidates, even though the races move on to the Aug. 12 primary election.

Democrats gather in Duluth today with only a two-person secretary of state race to settle.

Democratic-Farmer-Laborite politicians hold every statewide office in Minnesota government and they control the state House and Senate. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, made it clear Thursday that will be used against Democrats.

“Single-party control hasn’t served Minnesotans very well,” he said, with new candidates and incumbents standing behind him at the Capitol.

Republicans need to win the seats they already hold as well as seven more to regain control. He said that nine House districts now held by Democrats voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, meaning GOP chances are good.

Phillip Nelson, a Bemidji candidate running against Democratic Rep. John Persell, said many of the Republican candidates are 35 younger. He is 32.

“I want to learn how to steer leadership,” he said.

Many of the GOP candidates come from business backgrounds, like Dave Baker of Willmar, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Mary Sawatzky.

“I’ve never done this before,” the 52-year-old Baker said, but he and other businessmen-candidates “know how to create a new job.”

Business has been “deeply hurt” under Democratic domination, Baker added.

Tim Miller of Prinsburg is making his second attempt to unseat Rep. Andrew Falk, D-Murdock. He is a consultant for businesses and non-profits.

“My skill is casting a vision,” Miller said, adding that Minnesota government lacks that ability.

While GOP candidates declared they could win back the House after two years of DFL control, Newman said that more than four decades of Democratic control of the attorney general’s office was more than enough.

The Hutchinson Republican cited what he called “a sense of entitlement to that office by the DFL Party” and said Attorney General Lori Swanson, has put party ahead of her office’s duties.

Newman said state agencies’ power has grown too much in the past four decades and that he would weigh in as attorney general to try to rein that in. Agencies now write rules, investigate alleged violations and then adjudicate them, Newman said.

DFL Chairman Ken Martin said that Republicans waited until a day before they were to endorse a candidate to get someone to run against Swanson.

“As a legislator, Newman has not served on commerce committees that deal with issues similar to those handled by the attorney general’s office,” Martin said. “He’s voted consistently with his party and has supported constitutional amendments denying people the right to marry or to vote without identification; eliminating middle-class jobs; and deep cuts to the state’s public higher education system.”

Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

Bonding bill due in House Thursday, but GOP balks

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House expects to debate a public works funding bill Thursday without a controversial house fire sprinkler provision and with partial funding for a southwest Minnesota water project, but possibly without enough Republican support for the statewide construction plan to pass.

Democrats released what they said was an agreement about how to spend $846 million in borrowed money and another $279 million from the state budget surplus. But getting enough votes to pass the $846 million, to be repaid by the state selling bonds, remained in doubt Wednesday night.

Republicans were dragging their feet on the only bill Democrats really need their help to pass. Bonding needs a three-fifths majority to pass, and Democrats do not have enough members to do that on their own.

House Bonding Chairwoman Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, said negotiators reworked earlier bonding bills to include more projects in Republican districts. She said she assumed Republicans would vote for it because it fit a deal Republican and Democratic lawmakers made last year.

But Hausman did not get a guarantee of enough GOP votes as negotiations proceeded in recent days.

“Legislative leaders remain in discussions about a path forward on the bonding bill,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Wednesday night. “Today’s so-called agreement is nothing more than an idea between Democrat legislative leaders, and not a plan Republicans agreed to or were involved in crafting.”

Daudt said Republicans plan to continue to work on writing a bill members of both parties can support.

Hausman’s Senate counterpart did not appear worried about getting Republican votes for the bill.

“We worked very closely with the governor’s office, the House and our Republican counterparts in the Legislature to compile a bonding package that will benefit every corner of Minnesota,” Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, said.

It was not clear when the House would begin debating the bill today, but it could last for hours.

Republicans and Democrats were filing a variety of amendments Wednesday night in preparation for today’s debate.

The Senate could take the bill up quickly after the House passes it, if it does, but only if Senate leaders can get enough votes to suspend rules that otherwise would not allow debate on the measure until Saturday. The state Constitution requires the final votes for this year’s legislative session to come no later than Sunday, giving little time to rewrite the bonding bill.

House and Senate leaders opted to remove a provision from the Senate bill that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton blasted. It would have forbid his administration from enacting a rule requiring fire sprinklers in homes larger than 4,500 square feet.

Dayton said Wednesday that if people do not want to pay for sprinklers, they could build smaller homes. A majority of Minnesota homes would not need sprinklers under the rule.

In addition to sprinklers, the other fiery public works project is a nearly $70 million water system in southwestern Minnesota.

The Lewis and Clark system would pipe in water from South Dakota. Minnesota is being asked to pick up the tab after the federal government backed away from plans to fund it.

The Hausman-Stumpf bill includes $22 million for the project, which is enough to complete the next phase. However, Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, the top House bonding Republican, said that the Legislature generally funds an entire project, not just one phase.

Republicans have made Lewis and Clark their top bonding complaint.

Hausman said she was most proud of including $100 million for improving poor Minnesotans’ housing.

Among projects in the bonding bill are:

– $126 million to finish restoring the state Capitol building.

– $240 million for state-run college and university projects.

– $61 million for convention centers in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud.

– $18 million to acquire land for trails.

The cash bill would provide:

– $12 million to prevent floods.

– $56 million to remodel the state security hospital in St. Peter.

– $54 million for local road improvements.

– $24 million for local bridge replacement.

– $1.5 million for local ice arenas to replace outlawed cooling systems.