Special session almost set for Friday

Waiting to talk to the media on Thursday, June 11, 2015, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, left, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann collect their thoughts. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Waiting to talk to the media on Thursday, June 11, 2015, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, left, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann collect their thoughts. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota political leaders expect a special Friday legislative session Friday, but Gov. Mark Dayton will not schedule it until he is convinced none of the 201 legislators will mess up the plan.

Dayton plans to meet with Democratic lawmakers tonight to make sure they are willing to support three funding bills he vetoed, as well as a public works financing measure and legislation to fund outdoors and arts programs.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he is not sure his members would pass an agriculture-environment bill, due to a multitude of environmental concerns. However, he added, the votes should be there once Dayton tells them that the bill is the best they will get.

Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said Dayton will speak to their members tonight. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he could invite the governor to talk to his members, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he does not see the need in his caucus.

Once Dayton receives assurances that the bills will pass, he said that he will schedule a Friday session.

“I really ask the 201 legislators to look beyond their particular political views,” Dayton said Thursday morning after meeting with the four legislative leaders.

Without the final three budget bills, a partial government shutdown would begin July 1. Before then, Minnesotans could feel the impact, such as state parks not accepting camping reservations beginning next week.

“What is at stake now is the continuity of government in the state of Minnesota,” the governor said.

Dayton and legislative leaders expect a one-day session. An activity near the Capitol would make it difficult to extend the session into Saturday, Bakk said.

Most of the concern about passing the environmental bill is from Bakk’s caucus.

“They members feel they have a constitutional right to offer an amendment,” he said, but leaders and Dayton oppose any changes to bills they have negotiated since the regular session ended on May 18.

“We don’t have time to continue this process…” Dayton said, referring to the June 30 deadline for passing bills. “This is about stepping up to do what we must do.”

“The game’s over,” he added. “Now you can get prepared for the next game.”

A special session is needed because Dayton vetoed three of eight budget bills during the regular session. Negotiations since then have changed those bills, although Daudt said they look much like what passed earlier.

Education layoff notices coming

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin tell reporters on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, that they think the 2015 Minnesota Legislature was a success. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin tell reporters on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, that they think the 2015 Minnesota Legislature was a success. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota’s education funding dispute means more than 800 state education workers will begin receiving layoff notices June 1, with any actual layoffs not starting until July 1.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he regrets the need to upset workers’ lives, but state law requires that workers who could be laid off receive a month’s advance notice, even though if his education funding differences with lawmakers could be settled before July 1.

Democrat Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown each said on Wednesday that a special legislative session to fix the funding quarrel, and consider non-education bills, almost certainly would not be called before the layoff notices are mailed.

Dayton said he would veto the bill providing education $17 billion over two years. The Legislature-passed bill funding early childhood to high school programs does not contain his priority, funding a half-day of school for 4-year-olds.

Minnesota Management and Budget says that without an education bill when the new fiscal year begins July 1, the Education Department will shut down and many school funds would not be available.

However, the state could go to court as it did during 2011 and 2005 partial government shutdowns and ask a judge to declare that some employees and some funds are critical to the state and that they be allowed to continue even without a bill.

Four hundred people work for the Education Department.

The Dayton administration says also laid off would be 300 workers at the state academies for the deaf and blind and 120 at the Perpich Center for Arts Education without a signed education funding bill.

Also, the administration says that “major cuts” would be needed, including layoffs, at local schools if there is no legislation.

While the governor and legislative leaders have not predicted an extended education funding argument, the differences are deep and five months of a regular legislative session did not bridge them.

Plus, there may be different visions on other items that could come up during a special session. Those differences also could delay a special session start.

Daudt on Wednesday seemed to agree with Dayton on the need to call a special session to deal with education funding. The two also said a public works spending bill and legislation funding outdoors and culture projects should be considered. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, earlier backed considering those two measures.

Others want more on a special session agenda.

House Democratic Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said other budget bills should be reconsidered: “We have the opportunity to hit the reset button.”

Dayton discounted that idea, but said it could be the end of the week before he knows whether he will veto any spending bill other than education.

Thissen will have more of a say in special session decisions than he did during late regular session negotiations because Dayton plans to require all four legislative leaders — Bakk, Daudt, Thissen and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie — to sign an agreement outlining the agenda for a special session before he calls it.

The main dispute centers on early education funding. Dayton wants to spend $171 million for schools to be allowed, but not required, to start half-day classes for 4 year olds. Republicans and many Democrats prefer to put any new money to per-pupil funding that could be used for needs other than pre-kindergarten.

Daudt said pre-special session education negotiations should begin where they left off shortly before the Legislature adjourned at midnight Monday: with the two sides $25 million apart and no pre-kindergarten funding. To reach a deal, Dayton dropped his pre-kindergarten program in the last hour of session.

Dayton said he does not know where he and Daudt will begin negotiations, scheduled for Tuesday, but in talking to reporters the last two days he seemed to learn toward going back to his 4-year-old education stand.

Also Wednesday, Daudt demanded Dayton apologize for saying some Republicans “hate schools.” The governor refused, but said he would apologize if they vote for his pre-kindergarten plan.

Daudt and House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, visited southern Minnesota communities Wednesday to promote what they call a successful regular session. Dayton has said he plans to hit the road next week to sell his pre-kindergarten proposal.

After he left a Rochester appearance, a local Democratic representative called for Daudt to resign, the Post-Bulletin of Rochester reported.

Rep. Rep. Tina Liebling accused Daudt of abusing his power and ignoring the democratic process, citing a chaotic ending of the legislative session featuring Democrats shouting at the speaker because they were told to vote without reading a 93-page bill they just received.

“This was a case of the majority, of the speaker who you just heard from, abusing his power, demonstrating an utter disdain for the democratic process and ramming through a bill that had not been read or considered,” Liebling said.

Education bill heads to promised veto

An education funding bill Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton promises to veto is headed to his desk.

With less than a half day left until the state Constitution orders lawmakers to finish their work, senators voted 51-14 to approve the bill Dayton says he cannot sign because it does not fund half-day classes for 4 year olds. A mixture of Democrats and Republicans voted against the bill.

The House earlier approved the bill 71-59, with all Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

If Dayton follows through with his promise to veto the bill, and it occurs before midnight, the question will be whether he and legislative leaders who crafted the measure can work out a last-minute compromise. If that does not happen, the governor could call a special legislative session to pass an education bill.

On Sunday, Dayton said in his strongest language yet that he would veto the education bill because it does not fund his top priority: pre-kindergarten education. It falls $171 million short.

Dayton blamed House Republicans on the lack of pre-kindergarten funding.

“They are responsible, not me,” Dayton said as he blamed the GOP for a special session. “Their attitude is they will pass this bill and walk away.”

Dayton’s fellow Democrats in the Senate said lots of nice things about the bill Dayton promises to veto.

One provision that will help greater Minnesota, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer said, “is going to mean an awful lot.” It would allow schools to get state money to help make repairs.

Stumpf told of one school district that had to make roof repairs over a numbers of years because it could not afford to make all the needed repairs, adding that the provision would have helped.

Otherwise, the Legislature was well on its way to passing a $41 billion, two-year budget. Much of the spending was negotiated by Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook.

However, after the three failed to reach a deal on education funding, Daudt and Bakk met privately for two hours Friday afternoon and came up with their own plan.

While Dayton Sunday expressed displeasure with provisions in the other seven spending bills, he only issued a veto threat on education.

The House education vote just before 5:30 a.m.

The bill would spend $17 billion in the two years beginning July 1.

“Legislative leaders crafted a student-focused, bipartisan education bill that works to provide Minnesota students with a world-class education,” House Education Finance Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said. “From increasing E (early childhood)-12 funding by a substantial $400 million to prioritizing our youngest learners with millions more for pre-k scholarships and school readiness aid, this legislation increases academic opportunities for all students and will help close the achievement gap.”

Democrats saw the bill differently.

“Just like this entire session, the Republican education bill is a huge waste of an opportunity for Minnesota’s future,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “With a $2 billion surplus, we should seize this opportunity to invest in our youngest learners and make serious progress to reduce our state’s achievement gap.”

Much of the new money goes to increasing per-pupil aid to all public schools. It also would spend $60 million for early-childhood education and adds money to help greater Minnesota schools improve and repair facilities.

House and Senate members overnight also passed a $12 billion measure funding health programs. It retained the existing MNsure health insurance exchange structure, which both parties wanted to change. It also maintained the MinnesotaCare state-subsidized insurance program for the poor, which Republicans wanted to eliminate.

 

Minnesota GOP rolls out $2 billion tax-cut plan

Davids

Davids

Minnesotans deserve a $2 billion tax break, House Republicans say, while admitting they will not get their way.

A plan the GOP laid out Monday features a provision to give Minnesotans $539 million income tax cuts with another $453 million for beginning to phase out the statewide business and cabin property tax. The bill is expected to be in front of the full House in coming days, as lawmakers have less than a month to pass and then negotiate their final budget and tax bills.

The proposal contains a wide variety of tax cuts, including $131 million in credits for student loans, $61 million for farmers and other Minnesotans by reducing the state estate tax, $50 million to farmers by reducing their share of school district construction costs and $101 million to encourage businesses to increase research and development.

“State government has collected $2 billion too much from Minnesotans,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, declared as he and other GOP leaders announced their tax package.

Republicans did not touch the new tax Democrats added two years ago on the richest Minnesotans when they were in charge of the House, Senate and governor’s office. House Tax Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he knows Dayton, a Democrat, will not approve eliminating that tax, so he opted for tax cuts he thought would be more acceptable.

While Dayton’s spokesman said he is awaiting a Revenue Department analysis before commenting on the plan, House Democrats wasted no time attacking it.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said Republicans are misleading Minnesotans by saying their bill aims to help the middle class. He said it really helps big businesses.

The income tax relief could provide up to $1,500 a year tax savings for a family of four, Republicans say. Thissen, however, said an average-wage single tax filer would more likely get $50 to $70 a year.

The income tax change would last two years, while the statewide property tax phase out would come over a number of years.

Republicans say that the Twin Cities’ tax relief for next year would be $110 million from the property tax change, with greater Minnesota getting $132 million. Greater Minnesota would get far more relief for cabins, officially known as season recreational properties: $30 million vs. $860,000 for the Twin Cities metro area.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that eventually eliminating the statewide property tax (local property taxes would not be affected) would allow “our small business owners to survive and, hopefully, thrive.”

Aitkin County Commissioner Donald Niemi agreed with Drazkowski that the Republican plan could help small businesses. For one restaurant in his area, Niemi said, 400 pies must be sold to pay for the state property tax.

With stores closing across Minnesota, the commissioner said, any help like the phase-out helps.

Thissen agreed that at first small businesses may do well under the bill, but said as the phase-out continues the benefit would shift to big businesses and to the Twin Cities.

Davids claimed that 75 percent of the GOP bill is “targeted to the middle class and actual Minnesotans, not businesses.”

“I wanted to bring as many people into tax relief as I possibly could,” he said, adding that even though he hoped for Democratic support for some provisions, he knows the bill cannot pass as is.

Thissen compared the overall tax plan to a time in the early 2000s when Jesse Ventura was governor and rebate checks were sent to Minnesotans. Soon after the “Jesse checks” were sent, the economy went sour and the state budget faced numerous problems.

Dilworth Democratic Rep. Paul Marquart, an assistant minority leader, said he fears an $85 million cut to Local Government Aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis also would hurt other cities.

Democrats brought several Minnesotans to a news conference who said they would be harmed by the overall Republican budget.

Nancy Swanson, a server at the Green Mill restaurant in Willmar, said a bill up in the full House on Wednesday would affect her income. The provision would lower the minimum wage for some people who receive tips.

Swanson, married with four children, said that she does her best to serve customers, and in return they “give us nice tips. I’m going to be penalized for a job well done.”

The Republican tax bill also includes:

— $50 million for Minnesotans who pay more using MNsure than their previous health insurance providers.

— $47 million for families with children by increasing education deduction.

— $35 million for families by establishing a larger child care tax credit.

— $21 million by repealing sales tax on digital products such as downloaded songs.

— $20 million for pre-kindergarten student deductions.

— $40 million to let families deduct contributions to Minnesota College Savings Plan.

— $237 million to phase out tax of Social Security payments.

— $52 million to eliminate income tax on military pay and pensions.

— $10 million to provide tax credit for saving for long-term care costs.

 

Minnesota Republican budget plan features $2 billion tax cuts

Daudt

Daudt

House Republicans want to cut Minnesotans’ taxes $2 billion and increase state spending $1.5 billion in the next two years.

House committees are to work out the details after GOP leaders this morning announced spending targets for each finance committee.

While Republicans promoted the budget growth, Democrats said the plan does not allow as much growth as already planned.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the House Taxes Committee has not decided who would receive tax cuts. However, he said that most would go directly to Minnesotans, not businesses.

The idea is to “put money back into the pockets of working Minnesotans,” Daudt said.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he expects tax relief to mostly go to corporations who politically support Republicans.

The Republican plan would send back in tax cuts the same amount as projected for a state budget surplus in the next two years. Daudt earlier had said that he did not expect to refund all of the surplus, but state Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey led a campaign to “send it all back.”

Overall, the GOP proposes modest health and human services spending growth from current spending, and Daudt said he expects at least $160 million more for long-term care spending, such as for nursing homes and home care for the elderly and disabled.

Thissen repeatedly compared the Republican proposal to 2011, when state government shut down after the two major parties could not agree on a spending bill.

“It’s a recipe for getting nothing done and shutting down government,” Thissen said.

Republicans said their plan matches what happens in families: not spending more than is available.

“Government spending should not grow faster than family budgets,” Daudt said, echoing comments Republicans made in last year’s campaigns. “We set our budget targets with that value in mind and aimed to prioritize education, roads and bridges and protecting our aging Minnesotans’ quality of life.”

Republicans propose increasing higher education spending $103 million and early-childhood-through high school funding by $1 billion.

Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, said the increase would be enough to freeze either the University of Minnesota or Minnesota State Colleges and Universities tuitions, but not both. Dayton proposes to freeze tuitions for both systems.

Democrats tend to figure spending based on what had been expected to be spent in the next two-year budget, while Republicans compared it with what actually is being spent in the current budget.

 

Political chatter: North Dakota gun law leads to Minnesota committee shootout

Minnesota legislators often discuss North Dakota, usually in relation to its oil wealth and usually the talk is accompanied by envy.

But the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee underwent a lengthy and spirited debate about a topic with even more firepower than money: whether North Dakota residents’ gun permits should be honored in Minnesota.

After a meeting split between morning and night Thursday, the committee cast a divided vote to allow Class I North Dakota permits to be legal. The next stop is the full House.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, is author of a similar Senate bill.

The argument came because gun rights groups do not agree with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s decision that the North Dakota gun permit law is not close enough to Minnesota law to allow reciprocity.

Current Minnesota law requires the state to honor gun permits from states with “substantially similar” laws to Minnesota. The BCA makes that decision and puts a list of those states that do not have similar laws on its Website.

The bill in front of the House would remove the word “substantially” from the Minnesota law, but also specifically requires the BCA to allow Class I North Dakota permits. Class I permits require more testing than North Dakota’s Class II permits.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s Website indicates that “holders of a Class 1 license have reciprocity in many more states than those who have a Class 2 license.”

Minnesota allows gun permit holders from 11 states to carry weapons in the state. The bill could nearly triple the number of states.

Lawmaker rejects immunity

Minnesota legislators have discussed for years whether they are immune to arrest during a legislative session.

Like in many states, there is a constitutional provision dealing with legislative immunity. Some say lawmakers cannot be arrested, while others disagree, so legislation often is discussed about clarifying that in most instances lawmakers can be arrested like anyone else.

The debate is back on the table in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, and it faces a tall hill to climb, but the issue arose in another state.

It came up this year in Kentucky, when state Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard was charged with drunken driving. At first, Smith claimed legislative immunity from arrest, but later withdrew a court motion requesting that because, he said, he did not want to look like he was seeking a special favor.

“Quite frankly I would have liked to have been arguing that today (in court) but he felt like he did not want to rely on that,” the senator’s attorney, William Johnson said, as quoted in The State Journal of Frankfort. He explained that it’s been embarrassing and difficult for Smith to carry out his legislative duties while facing these charges. “He felt you ought to go through the justice system and that’s what we’re doing.”

Smith, who lost his driver’s license because he did not obtain a lawyer by the Kentucky deadline, has pleaded not guilty and expects an April jury trial on the charge.

Spirited debates go nowhere

The two liveliest debates of the 10-week-old legislative session resulted in lots of talk but no bill moving forward.

Senators got into how schools should handle transgender athletes when Republicans tried to pull a bill out of a Senate education committee that did not appear to be going anywhere. The attempt to move the bill directly to the full Senate failed, but senators took plenty of time to debate transgender issues.

Representatives took part in a 90-minute debate about long-term care funding when Democrats tried to get an immediate vote on a bill that would increase senior care funding.

The colorful debate included Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, saying Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, wanted to be king and Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, saying House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was “acting like a dictator.”

Winkler’s comments came when Daudt ended the session for the day as Thissen was seeking a roll call for adjournment.

Lawmakers will get a break from each other when they take an Easter vacation March 28 to April 6.

Statues under scrutiny

First it was Christopher Columbus; now it is Leif Erickson.

A bill by Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, calls for a Columbus statue plaque on the Capitol grounds to be reworded from him discovering America to him landing here. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, D-Minneapolis, now has added a bill to make a similar change to an Erickson statue across the street from the Capitol.

Historians do not agree on who actually was first to land in what now is the United States.

Columbus is being attacked on another front, too.

With some cities opting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, there now is a state House bill to do the same statewide.

Rep. Susan Allen, D-Minneapolis, introduced legislation to make the second Monday in October American Indian and Indigenous People’s Day “to acknowledge and promote the well-being and growth of Minnesota’s American Indian and Indigenous community.”

State of State April 9

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to deliver his annual State of the State address at 7 p.m. in the House chamber.

He originally was going to deliver it next Wednesday, but legislative leaders asked him to postpone it because of deadlines. Then he asked if he could speak on April 8, but House Republicans reported a scheduling conflict.

 

16-cent-a-gallon gas tax center of transportation plan

Zelle

Minnesota motorists would pay at least 16 cents a gallon more gasoline taxes under Gov. Mark Dayton’s transportation funding proposal.

They would pay slightly higher motor vehicle license fees and $10 more to register a vehicle. Also, a half percent sales tax increase would be applied in the Twin Cities for transit needs.

Dayton announced Monday that he wants Minnesota to spend about $11 billion more in the next decade to improve the state’s roads and bridges and boost transit.

The Dayton administration indicates that those in greater Minnesota would pay about $15 a month for his plan while in the Twin Cities the cost would be closer to $24.

“Inadequate transportation clogs our lives with worse traffic congestion, longer commutes, more dangerous travel conditions,” Dayton said. “These deficiencies restrict our future economic growth and detract from our quality of life.”

The Democratic governor was critical of Republicans for refusing to raise taxes for transportation.

“It takes some political courage” to approve tax increases, he said.

The governor said that Republicans appear to want to solve the transportation situation is “waving a wand and saying ‘abracadabra.'”

However, the Republican chairman of the House transportation committee said that his committee will need time to assess transportation needs, which may not be completed until next year.

“I look forward to a long-term solution over the next two years,” Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing said.

Kelly already has laid out what he calls a temporary fix, which Republicans want until a long-term funding bill can be prepared.

The chairman said there probably is not enough time during this legislative session, which must end May 18, to fully understand transportation needs and funding alternatives.

At least for now, Kelly said, “we can address the problem with funding that is already there.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, was critical of Dayton.

“Gov. Dayton is showing once again he is either unwilling or unable to set priorities in the state budget, and instead resorts to massive new taxes on lower and middle class Minnesotans,” Hann said.

Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said the Dayton tax-increase plan comes “the minute working families begin to see some relief from high gas prices.”

Legislative Democrats generally liked the Dayton plan.

“Unfortunately, the proposal put forward by the Republicans in the Minnesota House fails to meet any of the standards necessary for Democratic support,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “While Gov. Dayton’s plan would be a bridge to the future, Republicans have offered Minnesotans a bridge to nowhere.”

Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said half of the state’s highways are at least 50 years old, and 20 percent have three or fewer years of life left.

In addition to state highways, the Dayton plan increases funding for cities, counties and townships.

Greater Minnesota transit funds would increase $120 million in the next two years, with money coming from the state General Fund. Twin Cities transit needs would be funded by the higher sales tax.

The major part of the Dayton increase comes in a wholesale tax on gasoline. While it is different from the existing per-gallon tax, it would be felt much the same at the pump.

The tax would be 16 cents a gallon when wholesale prices are $2.50 a gallon or less. If wholesale prices go higher than $2.50, so would Dayton’s proposed new tax.

The wholesale price now is about $1.30.

The existing state gas tax is 28.5 cents a gallon and the federal tax is 18.4 cents.

Transportation officials did not say what specific projects that would be funded by the higher taxes.

Dayton’s plan depends on federal funds, which have yet to be appropriated.

The governor pledged to find $600 million from the Minnesota Department of Transportation doing things more efficiently.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a leader of a city coalition seeking more street funding, said the Dayton plan is a good start, but does not give cities enough to fix their streets. And, he added, it does not help cities smaller than 5,000 population.

 —-

 Transportation funds

Money in Gov. Mark Dayton’s transportation plan would be divided over 10 years:

— $5.4 billion for state roads and bridges

— $2.4 billion for cities, counties and townships

— $2.8 billion for Twin Cities transit

— $120 million for greater Minnesota transit

— $75 million for bike and pedestrian paths and the Safe Routes to Schools program.

First legislative day combines ceremony with policy

Opening day

Pomp and policy mixed Tuesday as Minnesota legislators returned to work in their 2015 session.

Winifred Swedzinski, 6, was in the House chamber for the pomp as her father, Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, was sworn in for his third term. She and her three sisters quietly played around their father’s desk during the noon hour session.

Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, brought guests for the ceremony, but he also was thinking about taxes.

“We were told two years ago (when Democrats controlled the Legislature and governor’s office) that property taxes would be fixed once and for all,” he said, adding that has not happened and improving the tax climate is top on his priority list.

First-time lawmakers like Dave Baker, R-Willmar, were glad Tuesday finally arrived.

Baker said his time since the November election has been full of meetings about a variety of issues due to come up during the legislative session tha tthe state Constitution says must be done by May 18.

“I didn’t realize all the moving parts there are here,” Baker said.

Most eyes Tuesday were on Kurt Daudt, a representative with four years in the House who became its speaker, a position often said to be the second most powerful political job in state government.

Daudt, R-Crown, said his inexperience may be a plus because he does not bring all the political baggage long-time lawmakers carry. He is the youngest speaker since the 1930s and one of the least experienced.

The soon-to-be-speaker sat at a back-row desk while colleagues lauded him before the House voted on speaker.

“He sounds like a good guy,” Daudt joked during one of the speeches nominating him.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said Daudt can help all of Minnesota grow: farms, urban areas, mines, suburbs. And, Kresha added, Daudt can conduct the House’s business with decorum.

Democrats put up outgoing speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis to continue in that role, but Daudt won 72-62, a strict party-line vote.

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, nominated Thissen, saying he has “a very strong record of leading this body.”

In a brief speech after taking the speaker’s oath, Daudt said that growing up on a family farm taught him to study problems before coming up with solutions. “We have an opportunity to do that now.”

He said that he rules nothing out as the legislative session begins.

“We should all expect and embrace new ideas,” Daudt said.

After the House session, Daudt said that House Republicans on Thursday will roll out bills dealing with jobs and the economy, nursing homes, an education achievement gap suffered by minorities and poor Minnesotans, transportation and reforming the MNsure state health sales system.

“I hope we can have great debates and decide on something together.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said Democratic senators on Thursday will introduce a package of six bills reflecting their priorities for the session.

He declined to disclose what’s in the bills, but he said, “I think they’re priorities that most Minnesotans will agree with.” They’ll include some new ideas,

Some parts of rural Minnesota have not benefited from the recovering national economy, he said, “So I think there is going to be some additional emphasis” on providing economic aid to those areas.

Bakk said he will seek quick action on a disaster relief package for parts of the state damaged by severe flooding last summer.

The state used up its $3 million disaster-aid account last month, and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would ask lawmakers to promptly pass an emergency bill. Administration officials estimated at least $8.7 million is needed to cover a gap between the cost of recovery and the disaster aid already supplied by the state and federal governments.

Bakk also said “there’s interest” in taking quick action on a bill to make Minnesota tax law conform with new tax breaks in the federal tax code. If the state law isn’t updated by Jan. 20, many Minnesota taxpayers will face higher federal income tax bills and have to file more complicated tax returns.

Bakk and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that they would like to consider not meeting next year, largely because the Capitol building will be mostly closed due to a $270 million renovation. The plan has been for the House to meet in its chamber, which would be the only part of the Capitol still open, and the Senate meet in a large committee room in a new office building now being constructed.

Daudt and Thissen said they would consider the Senate leaders’ idea, but that would mean that a public works funding bill would need to pass this year. Such bonding bills usually are debated in even-numbered years.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, wasted little time going after Democrats on opening day.

“Over the last two years we saw the harm caused by Gov. Dayton and DFL majorities,” Ingebrigtsen said. “This year we now have a Republican majority in the Minnesota House. This will undoubtedly give a stronger voice to Greater Minnesota. With this new Republican majority we now we have an opportunity to reform our tax laws to provide some relief to hardworking taxpayers.”

For House Democrats, after two years in the majority things are different.

“I am eager to learn how to best serve my district while serving in the minority,” Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia, said. “There are issues big and small facing our district and Minnesota. From ensuring a resolution to the relocation of Highway 53 to helping homeowners better address septic systems — these issues may not be glamorous, but they need to get done and they need bipartisan support to do it.”

For Willmar’s Baker, jobs and the economy are keys.

“The new Republican majority is ready to get to work helping to grow jobs, improve Minnesota’s economy, and tackling the challenges facing Minnesota families,” Baker said.

Like other Republicans, Kresha said that he looks forward to his party being in control.

“It is nice to take some of the things I hear from home and put them into bills,” he said.

Jobs and child protection legislation are among those he is emphasizing. He said child protection action has bipartisan support after a northwestern Minnesota abuse case.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he is optimistic about being able to work with the Democratic governor in his House Agriculture Finance Committee.

Dayton representatives, including Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, already have talked to him about the budget.

Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said that with GOP House control, state government will be balanced again.

The farmer said rural lawmakers, whose November election wins gave Republicans the majority, need to show how important agriculture is to urban Minnesota.

Bill Salisbury of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press and Forum News Service are media partners.

Daudt in charge

Rep. Dean Urdahl takes oath

Rep. Paul Marquart’s first speech of year

Winifred Swedzinski and dad

 

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.

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.

Voters split their picks

Dayton

By Don Davis

Minnesota retains its reputations for being, well, unpredictable when it comes to elections.

In Tuesday’s election, the state’s voters gave two Democratic former recount survivors relatively easy victories, but turned over control of the state House to Republicans. They gave Democrats wins in two hotly contested U.S. House races, with one a razor-thin margin.

And a third party no longer will get state perks.

One look at maps illustrating the vote leads to a definite conclusion: Minnesotans are not shy about splitting tickets.

The most dramatic map would be of the U.S. House representation. Three massive mostly rural districts, along with Hennepin and Ramsey counties, elected five Democrats to the U.S. House. Three suburban districts, a far smaller acreage, picked Republicans for Congress.

Look on the map of where Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton drew votes and there are some clusters, such as the urban and northeastern areas. Republican Jeff Johnson did well in most rural counties, even those that voted for Democratic U.S. House candidates. It is just that most of those counties have fewer residents than where Dayton won.

Bring out the map for the state House races and you have a Republican domination.

Tuesday was a split verdict.

“We did very well in Hennepin, Ramsey and St. Louis counties,” a happy Dayton said Wednesday.

But, he said in response to reporters’ questions, that does not mean that he will ignore less populated counties that voted for Johnson.

“We made a lot of progress in the state, but there is a long ways to go,” he said, adding that he likes to travel the state talking to its residents — and that will not change in his final term in office.

“I am not going to sit in St. Paul the next four years,” he declared.

Election returns will not affect him, he added.

For Dayton, Tuesday marked a first and a last. It was the first time he tried to be elected to a second term, after opting against running a second time for state auditor and U.S. senator. On the other hand, he has said that at 67 this was his last election.

Across the state, Dayton beat Johnson 50 percent to 45 percent in complete but unofficial returns. The five-point win was big compared to his race four years ago that was decided by a recount.

Even more luxurious was Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s 202,899-vote margin over Republican Mike McFadden. Franken beat then-Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes after a lengthy recount and court battle in the 2008 election.

All statewide winners were Democrats, as they have been since Republican Tim Pawlenty won his second term in the governor’s office eight years ago.

The closest race came for secretary of state to replace retiring Secretary Mark Ritchie. Democrat Steve Simon received 22,408 more votes than Republican Dan Severson. Other statewide winners were incumbent Democrats Auditor Rebecca Otto and Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Statewide Democratic winners came in the face of a national Republican wave that washed the party into control of the U.S. Senate and boosted GOP’s U.S. House members, too.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party statewide victories came despite a low turnout that normally spells trouble for the party.

“Turnout was clearly an issue,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, whose Democrats face being a House minority. “I suppose there are a lot of reasons for that. There wasn’t a particularly exciting statewide campaign.”

Two of the most exciting races came in mostly rural U.S. House districts.

Incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills waited until early Wednesday to learn that Nolan is headed back to Washington after winning 49 percent to 47 percent in the north-central, northeast and east-central part of the state.

In the large western Minnesota congressional district, 24-year veteran Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson had an easier time beating Republican state Sen. Torrey Westrom 54 percent to 46 percent.

About half of the state’s 3.9 million registered voters went to the polls Tuesday or voted via newly legal early ballots. Ritchie said that in the last non-presidential general election, in 2010, turnout was 56 percent and in 2006 it was 60 percent.

Since there will be no statewide races in 2016, Republicans have four years to figure out how to get a winner.

It may take longer than that for the Independence Party, made famous by Gov. Jesse Ventura as the Reform Party. Since before Ventura was elected in 1998, the party carried legal status of a “major party,” giving its candidates easier ballot access and the chance to get state campaign money.

However, a major party must obtain at least 5 percent support in a statewide race, which it failed to do on Tuesday. That means Independence candidates will be treated by the state like other third parties, such as the Greens and Libertarians.

Election notebook: DFL, GOP trade jabs over late-campaign mailings

GOP mailing

DFL mailings

By Don Davis

It is the time of a campaign when things get a little rough, as shown Thursday when Minnesota Democrats and Republicans criticized each other for mailing inaccurate and inappropriate literature in state House races.

Democrats, led by House Speaker Paul Thissen, complained that the Republican Party sent out mailings critical of a drunken driving bill that even most Republicans supported. GOP Chairman Keith Downey countered by pointing out that Democrats mailed literature in poor taste, including one with a photo of “a clenched fist in front of a cowering child.”

Mailings in the days before an election often bring complaints, in part because that is when the most aggressive literature is unveiled. Two years ago, for instance, then-House Speaker Kurt Zellers complained about Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party mailings, much like Thissen did Thursday.

“They are trying to influence voters against candidates who vote for these bipartisan bills,” Thissen said.

Thissen brought Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving, to a St. Paul news conference Thursday to attack the GOP mailings.

“To use this for political gain, just so wrong,” said Cummings, who added that he has not been active in partisan politics.

Cummings, attorney Bob Speeter, Thissen and Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, said the bill Republicans are using in the literature allows drivers convicted of multiple drunken driving offenses to get behind the wheel sooner than before, but they must be sober enough to engage an ignition interlock system designed to be unusable by someone who had too much to drink.

Speeter said that prevents more drunken drivers from getting behind the wheel than an old law that revoked driver’s licenses. He said that studies show those whose licenses had been revoked drive anyway.

“Minnesota Democrats have to use these tactics because their ideas don’t work,” Downey said in a statement.

A GOP statement added: “Absent from the discussion so far is the sensational imagery and disgusting content of recent Democrat mailings depicting a candidate holding a weapon and breaking into a home, a clenched fist in front of a cowering child and a person sharpening a straight razor.”

Democrats said their House members who have been subject of GOP mailings, all in competitive districts, include Reps. Joe Radinovich of Crosby, Mary Sawatzky of Willmar, Jay McNamar of Elbow Lake, Sandra Masin of Eagan, Will Morgan of Burnsville, Zachary Dorholt of St. Cloud and Yvonne Selcer of Minnetonka.

This tops it all

The cap of a tough and tumble U.S. Senate campaign is a dispute about, well, caps.

Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s campaign against Republican Mike McFadden Thursday emailed a news release headlined: “McFadden campaign gear MADE IN CHINA.”

The release was accompanied by three photos, including two showing a tag proclaiming that the cap, indeed, was made in China.

Franken’s release, which said his campaign gear is made by union members in the United States, said that McFadden’s campaign T-shirts worn at the Republican state convention were made in Nicaragua.

“The fact that McFadden outsources his campaign gear to workers in China and Nicaragua shouldn’t be surprising given his profits-over-people philosophy,” the Franken release said. “McFadden also supports tax breaks for companies that ship American jobs overseas to places like China and he would prefer to build the Keystone XL Pipeline with Chinese steel — not American-made steel — if it were cheaper. Chinese steel would undercut an American industry that supports thousands of jobs in Minnesota.”

McFadden campaign spokesman Tom Erickson presented a photograph taken at the campaign’s cap vendor warehouse. It was on top of Thursday’s USA Today, showing that the Giants won the World Series. A tag showed the cap was American made.

Erickson said that if any caps came from China, “we are truly sorry. However, it’s looking more and more likely that Al Franken concocted this story to turn attention away from his 97 percent voting record with President Obama.”

8th race gets tighter

Nationally prominent political observer Stu Rothenberg has joined the list of people saying Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District race is too tight to call.

He had termed the race “tossup-tilts Democratic,” but on Thursday changed the label to “pure tossup.”

The 8th is the district that covers all of northeastern Minnesota and much of the north-central and east-central parts of the state. First-time Republican candidate Stewart Mills, of the family that owns Mills Fleet Farm, is giving U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan all he can ask for in the race.

Overall, Rothenberg said, U.S. House Republicans are expected to expand their control of the chamber in Tuesday’s election.

Early voting popular

More than 125,000 Minnesotans have voted early this year, the first time they did not have to give an excuse such as they would be out of town on election day.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office reported that the number is a 61 percent increase compared to the number of absentee ballots cast four years ago in a comparable election. However, the 2012 election, which featured a presidential contest, attracted nearly 184,000 ballots at this time in the campaign.

Last week was a busy time to vote, with nearly 56,000 ballots cast.

Ritchie said local elections officials can process the ballots now, and the votes will be folded into precinct tallies election night.