Republicans take control of Legislature

Published 8:03 am Tuesday, January 4, 2011

By Tom Scheck

Minnesota Public Radio News

When the Minnesota Legislature begins its 87th session today, Republicans will control of both the House and Senate for the first time since 1972.

Topping the agenda for lawmakers will be finding a way to erase a projected $6.2 billion budget deficit. But Republican and Democratic differences over the budget could make it difficult to uphold pledges of bipartisan cooperation.

Still, the start of this legislative session offers promise as it marks the first time in decades that every member in a position of authority will be new to the job. There will be a new governor, a new Speaker of the House and a new Senate Majority Leader. There will also be new minority leaders.

The new faces could signal an end to several years of partisan sniping, as there will be fewer grudges and disagreements that percolated for years. Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon signaled that optimism after she took the oath of office Monday.

“Today we start this new chapter in Minneota’s history with a clean page — one where the old politics and partisanship are in the past and we can start anew,” she said.

Prettner Solon understands the partisan divide better than most. She was first elected in 2002 and watched as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty sparred with her DFL colleagues in the Legislature over the best way to balance the budget. Now, Prettner Solon and Gov. Mark Dayton occupy the governor’s office and Republicans control the Legislature.

But the disagreement over taxes and spending will continue. During his inaugural speech, Dayton pledged to work with Republicans but didn’t waver from his pledge to raise taxes.

“To those who sincerely believe the state budget can be balanced with no tax increase — including no forced property tax increase — I say, if you can do so without destroying our schools, hospitals and public safety, please send me your bill, so I can sign it immediately,” Dayton said.

Incoming GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said Republicans can do that, but she hasn’t outlined any specifics yet. Koch said she’ll wait for Dayton to release his budget plan in February. She stressed that Dayton and Republicans will work together on issues like job creation and regulatory matters — but said her caucus won’t move on taxes.

“I think we’re going to have some real honest disagreements but I think you can do that in a cordial and respectful way,” Koch said. “I am hopeful that the tone will continue. The debate will go on and we will have some definite disagreements on that but I don’t think that will change the tone.”

Incoming House Speaker Kurt Zellers agreed that House Republicans don’t want to increase taxes. But he said he hopes to find common ground with Dayton on job creation. At this point, Zellers said he’s focused on preparing his new members for the start of session.

“We have 33 freshmen so we got them all knowing where they need to show up and how to take the oath of office,” he said. “We’ll do a little dry run today. We’re very excited but are also ready to get to work. That’s the most important thing.”

Those new freshman, in both the House and Senate, will have their hands full. The state’s $6.2 billion projected budget deficit is the largest in the state’s history, and Democrats — still stinging from losing large majorities in both the House and Senate — will be itching to point out any Republican inconsistencies.

DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said he doesn’t think the Republicans can erase the state’s budget deficit without hurting schools or people who need health care.

“The challenges facing Republicans is how are they going to deliever on their priorities which is schools and older Minnesotans and people with disabilities and yet balance this budget with and all cuts budget,” Thissen said. “I think that’s going to be incredibly challenging if not impossible.”

The budget deficit won’t be the only major issue this legislative session. Dayton is calling for a public works bill to jump start hiring in the construction sector. The Minnesota Vikings also are seeking public funds for a new stadium. Lawmakers won’t have the option of delaying that matter. The team’s lease on the leaky-roofed Metrodome ends at the end of next season.