A divided state; Prepare for another acrimonious year at the Capitol

Published 10:01 am Thursday, November 10, 2016

By Tom Scheck | MPRnew.org/90.1 FM

When voters gave Republicans a majority in both chambers of the Legislature, it set off another showdown with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Both Dayton and Republican leaders say they hope to compromise on issues like health care costs, a state budget and transportation next session. But they’re also preparing to point blame if things don’t go their way.

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At a news conference Wednesday, House Republicans celebrated an expansion of their majority to 76 seats in 2017. Senate Republicans were also cautiously optimistic a one seat majority will hold after automatic recounts in two legislative races are settled.

Throughout the campaign, Democrats and Republicans weren’t sure which party would win control of the House. The Senate was an even bigger reach for the GOP.

But Republicans said MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange, became a big issue.

Regina Barr says she won her Inver Grove Heights-based House seat because voters were upset over rising health care costs.

“The last several weeks it’s all been health care, health care, health care,” she said. “People are hurting and really as a first time candidate and a newly elected representative, it was really heartbreaking for me to hear some of the stories on how people care going to do without.”

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt says fixing MNsure will be a key issue for them next session, and some sort of premium relief will be passed in the short-term. Over the long-term, Daudt wants to dismantle the entire program.

Health care wasn’t the only issue that helped Republicans, though, Daudt said. During a Wednesday news conference, he said voters also liked the idea of divided government.

“Voters chose compromise last night instead of giving one party control to Governor Dayton and the Democrats,” he said. But compromise could be hard to come by in the upcoming session.

Dayton has two more years in his term and doesn’t appear willing to budge on key issues. He says Minnesota voters sent a mixed message by narrowly backing Hillary Clinton for president but also supporting GOP control of the Legislature.

“Minnesotans are very closely divided and there are stark differences between those two groups of Minnesotans and the people who have been elected to represent them,” Dayton said.

Dayton and Republicans will also face a rerun of divided state government in 2011. That year, a budget impasse between the two sides resulted in a government shutdown.

While Dayton says he’s willing to work with Republicans this year, he warned the outcome could be messy again.

“It’s going to be unrealistic for Minnesotans to send a group of people that are closely divided and have deep differences and expect that it’s all going to be peace and harmony. It’s not,” he said. “They sent a divided government here in St. Paul and they’re going to get divided government for better and for worse.” MNsure isn’t the only issue on which Dayton and Republicans have stark differences.

Daudt opposes a move by the Met Council and local governments to pay for the Southwest Light Rail line between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis. He believes it still needs legislative approval.

“We don’t think that the project should proceed until the Legislature has transparent public hearings and approves the funding on the legislative level,” Daudt said. Dayton says Republicans have to come up with an alternative if they push to eliminate funding for the line.

Both Dayton and Daudt also want a special session to help Minnesotans struggling to pay for rising health care premiums. But they disagree over whether other items should be included in the special session. Daudt wants a tax cut package. But Dayton is ruling that out.

“If we’re going to get involved in all of the other rhetoric about MNsure and the [Affordable Care Act] and things that they couldn’t agree on last pring and last summer,” he said, “then I’m not interested in pursuing this any further.”

The next session begins on Jan. 3.