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.

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.

Updated: Special session not expected for flood disaster

By Don Davis

Minnesota leaders say they can avoid a pricey special legislative session and still provide local governments money as they recover from early-summer floods.

A new $3 million state disaster fund may be enough to reimburse local governments until legislators return to work Jan. 6, but Gov. Mark Dayton said his administration will continue to monitor the situation and could convene the Legislature if government leaders say they are running short of money.

A memorandum sent Tuesday from the state finance commissioner and emergency management director laid out the situation.

The total state and local government damage from floods across the state is pegged at $40.8 million for local government facilities, with the federal government due to pay 75 percent. That leaves $10.2 million for the state to pay, and the $3 million disaster fund should be enough to get by for now, Commissioner Jim Schowalter and Director Kris Eide said.

In an interview, Schowalter said local governments are not losing out on money by waiting until next year. However, he added, the Legislature may need to act soon after it convenes in order to keep money flowing.

If a special session is called before Nov. 4, it would come during a busy campaign season for Dayton and most House members.

“We will continue to monitor this situation and stay in touch with the administration, local officials and legislators in both parties to ensure communities affected by summer storms are receiving the aid they need before the 2015 session begins,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “And next session, we will give full consideration to remaining requests.”

Federal transportation officials already have sent millions of dollars to the state for road repairs. Dayton said that if that money runs out, “I would talk with (legislative) leaders about a special session.”

The Obama administration ruled that 37 of the state’s 87 counties and three tribal governments sustained enough damage to receive federal aid. The administration denied help to Morrison and Dakota counties.

To qualify for federal help, a county needed to show it incurred at least $3.50 per resident in damages.

Federal funds are only for governments to recover costs for flood fighting; they do not help private citizens and businesses that were damaged in flooding that began June 11 and in some cases extended into July.

Federal officials decided that damage in Morrison County did not occur during the disaster period. County officials say damage was $206,000 and under a new law the state would pay $155,600 of it if federal officials do not provide money.

Dakota County, meanwhile, sustained $1.7 million in public infrastructure cost, which federal authorities said they would not pay. The state and county are appealing that decision. If the federal government does pay, the state’s Dakota County cost would be $427,000; if federal officials continue to reject the request, the state portion would be $1.28 million.

 —

Counties receiving federal funds are Beltrami, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Chippewa, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Hennepin, Jackson, Koochiching, Lac Qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Le Sueur, Lyon, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Pipestone, Redwood, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Rock, Roseau, Scott, Sibley, Steele, Todd, Wadena, Waseca, Watonwan, Wright and Yellow Medicine. Tribal governments getting the money are Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Prairie Island Indian Community and Red Lake Band of Chippewa.

Farmington leaders offer to host special legislative session

Pitching Farmington

By Don Davis

Leaders of the southern Twin Cities suburb of Farmington Thursday offered to host a special legislative session to fund flood recovery.

“Minnesota has a proud tradition of coming together to provide relief for those in need following natural disasters, and Farmington would be a unique and well-suited location to host any upcoming special session given the current state of the Capitol,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

The invitation came as much of the Capitol building is closed for a $273 million renovation. However, state officials say the House and Senate chambers and some meeting rooms will be available if Gov. Mark Dayton needs to call a special session.

While the governor’s office and House speaker did not reject the Farmington proposal, neither did they give it much hope.

“It is an intriguing idea,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “However, there are questions in terms of costs and feasibility.”

Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said a special session, which is not a certainty, would need agreement among all four legislative leaders and the governor.

“While Rep. Garafolo’s idea is an interesting one, the additional costs incurred by holding a special session outside the Capitol would need to be considered…” Swenson said. “Gov. Dayton’s primary concern is ensuring Minnesotans affected by this summer’s flooding get the help they need as quickly as possible.”

Floods that affected more than half of Minnesota’s counties likely will bring a presidential disaster declaration, but even though the federal government would pay for most flood recovery costs, the state would be on the hook for 25 percent. That probably means the Legislature will need to convene to appropriate the money.

Most disaster recovery funding sessions last less than a day and are routine.

Farmington residents said they can offer lawmakers a home away from Capitol construction and it would give them a chance to toot their own horn.

“We are small town Minnesota nice, but with big city dreams,” Farmington High School student Natalie Pellin said.

School officials proposed using iPad technology they already have in their 5-year-old school to record votes.

“Farmington High School has the space and technology to host a legislative special session, and this is a chance for legislators to see firsthand the technology our students are using to help improve our education outcomes in the classroom,” Chairwoman Tera Lee of the Farmington School Board said.

Farmington Mayor Todd Larson said that holding the session in his community would showcase his entire community.

Garofalo said he is concerned with technological issues during a special session in the Capitol because some recording systems have been removed. He also expressed concerns about the public’s safety in a construction zone.

However, even though the Capitol will remain mostly closed next year, he said that he does not have the same concerns during next year’s regular session that begins in January and could last into May.

Garofalo admitted that the Farmington suggestion could set off a competition among cities around Minnesota to host the session. Soon after Farmington leaders talked to reporters, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, tweeted that his area would be a good location.

“This is purely to showcase the accomplishments of Farmington,” Garofalo said.

Pipelines allow Legislature to flow to end

Minnesota Senate

By Don Davis

Pipe dreams expressed early in the 2014 Minnesota legislative session gave way to pipelines as it neared an end Friday night.

The House adjourned for the year at 8:59 p.m. Friday, with the Senate following at 10:13 p.m. after two pipeline issues were settled in the final day. Oil-carrying pipelines, mostly in northern Minnesota, and southwest Minnesota’s water pipeline project received funding after talks among legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton produced results that allowed for a smooth session close.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, declared the 2014 session that began Feb. 25 and the 2013 session legislative successes.

“I think we had a productive two years, this year building on the work of last year,” Thissen said.

He pointed out measures lawmakers passed throughout the session such as raising the minimum wage, a measure to prevent school bullying and approving two tax-cut bills.

Republicans could not leave the Capitol quickly enough.

“Minnesota state government has not served Minnesotans well,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said, noting that Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office.

“As a result of this (two-year) session, we have one of the highest tax increases in state history,” Daudt said. “We have the highest budget increase in state history.”

While leaders of the two parties disagreed on the outcome of the 88th Minnesota legislative session, there was relatively little partisan debate Friday as work wound down.

Lawmakers Friday approved more than $1 billion in public works projects, legalized medical marijuana, lowered some taxes and told the state lottery to get out of online scratch-off game sales.

Pipelines took the spotlight in late-session negotiations.

A budget bill that wrapped up early Friday includes $3.75 million to increase training and buy equipment for first responders such as fire departments to deal with potential oil spills from pipelines. The money would come from assessments placed on pipeline companies.

The bill already contained more than $8 million for training and equipment where oil-carrying trains travel. The rail provision also would add two or three railroad inspectors to the one the state already employs.

About 900,000 Minnesotans live near oil pipelines, and many more live near railroad tracks where oil trains travel. Most oil trains go through Moorhead, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, but trains do travel other parts of the state.

House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said a key part of the bill requires the state Public Safety Department to study oil transportation safety — including trains, pipelines, trucks and boats — and provide information next year to legislators about what else needs to be done.

The House wanted the pipeline safety provision, but the Senate included no funding. Budget negotiators opted to include pipeline safety after Dayton piped up and demanded it.

The bill containing the oil pipeline safety items was an overall budget bill that increases spending $262 million in a $39 billion, two-year budget. Among its other provisions:

– Home and community-based health care workers and rural nursing homes all will get more state funding.

– Public education will receive $54 million more, including funds to increase early-childhood learning for more than 1,000 youths.

– Broadband high-speed Internet expansion efforts will get a $20 million boost.

– More than $31 million will be spent on a road program known as Corridors of Commerce.

– Another $10 million will be spent to fix potholes.

Dayton told lawmakers that he wanted money for the Lewis and Clark water system to serve southwestern Minnesota. Legislators obliged by approving $22 million from the state budget reserve to build the pipeline from the South Dakota line to Luverne and giving local governments authority to borrow $45 million to extend the system through several counties, with the state paying two-thirds of the loan costs.

“It is very important to the governor, first of all,” Thissen said of Lewis and Clark. “He gets a lot of credit for this making its way through.”

Thissen said the Lewis and Clark funding deal opened the door for adjournment.

“The main thing that happened in the last 24 to 36 hours is we put our heads together and figured out a better way to fund Lewis and Clark …” Thissen said. “It broke everything loose and everything fell into place.”

Also as the session neared its end, lawmakers voted to restrict online sales of state lottery games. While lotto-type tickets would remain available, the online version of scratch-off games the lottery introduced in February would disappear if the governor opts to sign the bill into law.

Tired legislators take their holiday break with much done, much left

Schoen

By Don Davis

The looks on Minnesota legislators’ faces before they began a holiday break told the story: They are tired.

The 201 legislators put in long hours the past couple of weeks debating and initially passing pretty much every major bill of the 2014 session, often going well after dark just as spring presents Minnesotans with longer days.

When asked about what would happen after the Legislature returns on April 22 following an Easter-Passover break, Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, showed the exhaustion common to many as the House was adjourning Thursday night.

“My mind is not even there,” Schoen said. “My mind is so tired, I can’t even think straight.”

After pausing, he came up with a few issues he thinks need to pass, then added that some bills lawmakers already passed may need to be revisited because “in our tired, weary minds, we may have missed something that should be fixed.”

It is a different type of year for the Legislature. It came into session Feb. 25, later than most years, and lawmakers are trying to cram in more work than often occurs the year after a state budget is produced.

Lawmakers will have less than four weeks after the holiday break to finish their work before constitutional deadline of May 19.

Days after the session began, lawmakers passed a bill providing financial aid to Minnesotans with problems paying for heat during the intense winter. On March, after plenty of political posturing, they approved $443 million of tax breaks.

Two other major issues are set to take effect. One requires local school districts to write policies to prevent bullying or the state will force them to follow one it prepares. The other issue that has been decided is a higher minimum wage, which in three years will be $9.50 an hour for big businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones.

Otherwise, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the major bills, such as one tweaking a $39 billion, two-year budget passed last year. Lawmakers dumped nearly all spending bills, and some that do not involve money, into the one massive bill.

Like most other remaining issues, the budget bills the House and Senate passed are different. So negotiators from both houses will sit down after the break and begin reconciling them, then sending them back for final votes.

One significant bill has passed the House, but not the Senate: a plan to move women toward equality with in the workplace.

Two hot-topic bills remain short of House and Senate votes.

Generally getting the spotlight in even-year sessions has been a bill funding public works projects around the state. In the House this year, it is a nearly $1 billion bill, funded both by borrowing money with state bond sales and some cash. It has made its way to near a full House vote, but the Senate measure will not be unveiled until soon after break ends.

Legislative leaders already agreed to spend $850 million, but many Democrats say they want to go higher. If so, they need Republican votes because Democrats alone do not have enough members to pass a bonding bill. Republicans are not eager to accept a higher figure.

The other big issue awaiting a decision is whether to allow marijuana, or an extract from the plant, to be made available to seriously ill Minnesotans, such as children suffering from seizures and cancer patients in great pain.

“We are trying to find ways to come to a solution,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said, but a compromise is needed with police and medical groups opposed to the medical marijuana plan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, gave the issue a kick ahead when he ordered a committee hearing on the bill, similar to one stalled in a House committee. There was no vote, but supporters say that if leaders allow the bill to proceed after returning to St. Paul, there are enough votes to pass it.

The question then would be if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that does not meet his main requirement: support by law enforcement and medical communities.

Bakk and Thissen said they will talk about the remaining issues some during the recess, although House leaders also plan to travel the state saying they already have shown a productive session.

Bakk said he could not predict if there will be any problems in the final few weeks of session. “I think it would depend on the governor’s engagement.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, said he is not concerned. “With the time that is left, we should get it all done. It will come together.”

—-

Here is the status of some issues:

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money mostly obtained by the state selling bonds. The House and Senate are looking at borrowing about $850 million, with additional cash from a state budget surplus. The House has a bill in play and senators likely will introduce their bonding bill soon after returning to St. Paul.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. The House and Senate have passed differing versions of a bill to tweak the budget and negotiators will work out differences after the recess.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed just before the recess to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No constitutional amendments have made much progress so far this year, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wants one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed.

Construction zones: Provisions have been folded into larger bills to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones. They have yet to receive final approval.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. Bills approving online registration are progressing.

Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives are being considered. The House passed its version, with the Senate expected to take it up after break. The fact that women earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction could begin this summer. However, a lawsuit against the building remains to be settled.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been debated, but stalled in a House committee after the governor expressed misgivings because law enforcement and medical groups oppose it. A Senate committee heard testimony on it just before the break, but will not vote until after legislators return to St. Paul.

Minimum wage: Legislative leaders negotiated a compromise to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically up to 2.5 percent a year to stay abreast with inflation. It will be law in time for the first step of the raise to begin in August.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups want to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. The issue has been debated in committees, but not in the full House and Senate.

Propane: Right out of the chute, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage brought on high prices. However, long-term solutions to propane price volatility have not moved forward.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators have made little progress toward agreeing on how to deal with the situation.

Synthetic drugs: Bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers have progressed and the House approved its bill. A Senate bill awaits a vote.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, with the second portion awaiting negotiations after the break. The bills cut income taxes and property taxes and overturn some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes appears to have failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work in the state budget surplus.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and better equipment for emergency personnel. The plans are included in an overall budget bill that remains to be negotiated.

Minnesota House, Senate agree on minimum wage increase

Bakk

By Don Davis

Legislative leaders agreed to raise the Minnesota minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in 2016, with lower wages for small businesses, those undergoing training, teens and some foreign workers.

The deal announced today includes a provision that beginning in 2018 all wages would increase each Jan. 1 to match inflation, but the state labor commissioner could suspend an increase if the economy is failing.

Full House and Senate votes are expected before lawmakers begin an Easter-Passover break on Friday.

Democrats who control the House and Senate praised the deal. Republicans and business leaders panned it.

“This is a good day for Minnesotans,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said in announcing the agreement.

The House had wanted an automatic increase for inflation, but Senate leaders were concerned. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that allowing the labor commissioner to stall automatic increases was a good compromise.

The Senate leader also said that phasing in the new minimum wage over three years is a good idea.

“I think we have a pretty strong provision for small businesses,” Bakk added.

Businesses with gross sales less than $500,000 annually will have a $7.75 minimum wage when it is fully implemented in 2016.

The agreement also allows large businesses to pay $7.75 for a 90-day training wage for 18- and 19-year-olds, for all 16- and 17-year olds and for some employees from other countries working at places such as resorts.

Mike Hickey of the National Federation of Independent Businesses predicted job losses if the bill is enacted.

Dan McElroy of Hospitality Minnesota said he does not expect many restaurant workers to lose their jobs because of the measure, but predicted continued higher meal prices than in neighboring states that count tips as part of wages. McElroy said he will continue to lobby to include tips in the minimum wage.

The most vocal legislative proponent of a minimum wage, Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said that despite an improving economy, many Minnesotans still struggle. He said they will have more money to spend, which will help businesses. He said studies show that raising the minimum wage does not hurt business.

Minnesota’s current minimum wage is $6.15, but most businesses fall under the federal $7.25 figure.

President Barack Obama wants to raise the federal wage floor to $10.10, but Republicans who control the U.S. House do not plan to go along with it. The president is taking steps to raise the minimum wage in areas where he has control, such as when the federal government hires private contractors.

Political notebook: Medical marijuana keeps producing controversy

By Don Davis

Medical marijuana is a story that is not going away.

A bill to legalize the plant to help people with extreme pain and children with seizures stalled, and Gov. Mark Dayton said he could not sign a medical marijuana bill if it did not have the support of law enforcement and medical organizations. They generally do not back the bill.

With most bills, all of that would have killed the measure. Not with this one.

Parents of children who suffer seizures gathered reporters for an emotional Wednesday news conference. With tears, they complained that Dayton is delaying help for their kids.

Jessica Hauser of Woodbury told reporters that Dayton suggested she buy marijuana illegally in Minnesota or go to another state. On Friday, Dayton gave “no” as his answer to a question about whether he told her to buy marijuana illegally.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say about medical marijuana,” Dayton added. “You had statements. You asked questions. … I’m just not going to discuss it further.”

He then talked about it some more.

Other drugs go through exhaustive testing before the public can access them, Dayton said. Since he must govern for all Minnesotans, he said, he wants the chemical from marijuana that may help control seizures to undergo the same test.

In a lengthy conference call with reporters earlier in the month, and something he repeated Friday, the governor said he “is told” that marijuana is available on the street in every Minnesota city.

While he has said he does not advocate breaking the law, he also has said he understands a parent’s desire to do anything possible to ease a child’s illness.

Another tax bill ready

Getting through one tax bill was taxing, and now the Minnesota House is ready to consider a second one.

“Our second tax bill will focus on ways to make further reductions in property taxes for homeowners, renters and farmers,” said House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington. “We believe this is a responsible way to continue expanding our economy from the middle out while maintaining our stable budget into the future.”

The first tax-cut bill was enacted a little more than a week ago, reducing income taxes for many Minnesotans as well as eliminating some sales taxes businesses pay.

The new House bill would reduce taxes $45 million.

Both tax-cut bills come after the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor last year approved more than $2 billion in tax increases.

Democrats are focusing on property tax relief in the phase 2 bill. They have campaigned for years on property tax increases they blamed on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP lawmakers.

The biggest single property tax relief provision would be $18 million to homesteaded farms. More than 90,000 farmers would be affected, with the average getting $460 lower tax bills.

About 500,000 other homeowners would receive $12.1 million in cuts, with renters getting $12.5 million in a 6 percent refund increase.

The full House is to vote on the measure in the next few days.

It’s a rushed session

All Minnesota politicians, and those who follow them, probably can agree on one thing: This year’s session is moving faster than any other.

“This session has been a mad rush to everything,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

He recalled the days, not that long ago, when the even-year session (also known as the election-year session) was reserved for approving a list of public works projects and fixing any urgent issues, such as dealing with economic changes.

That concept has changed dramatically, with pretty much any subject fine for debate.

“More is never enough,” Dayton said about politicians’ mentality.

The session, just over a month old, gets into some of its basic issues in the next week. House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said a bill making tweaks in last year’s $39 billion, two-year budget, will be up for a vote near the end of the week. So will a tax-cut measure.

The rush has brought up some tension among lawmakers, prompting Chairman Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, of the House health and human services finance committee to remark near the end of one long meeting: “I think we are so tired that we can’t get mad at each other any more.”

The great space debate

Minnesota politicians have delighted in arguing about space, specifically space in the Capitol and a proposed Senate office building.

All six Republican governor candidates, and most others in the GOP, have come out against the proposed $63 million building and a nearby $27 million parking garage. The House in general has been skeptical of the need for something on that scale.

Senate Democratic leaders, however, say that so many other agencies are growing during a Capitol renovation that they do not have enough space left for senators and their staffs.

The Senate space would drop from today’s 86,372 square feet to 48,025. At the same time, the governor’s office space would soar from 9,055 to 16,630, which Gov. Mark Dayton says is to give the lieutenant governor and staff space.

Historical society space would double, journalists would get more room and so would the Supreme Court. Public space, including for dining and exhibits, would grow.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Capitol building renovation is a good time to build a new facility because it would save the state from paying for temporary space to house senators and their staff for a year or two when their Capitol offices will be closed.

The decision about whether the new building is constructed rests on the House rules committee, which is looking into space needs and is expected to take a vote in April.