The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 8, 2013

Democrats are in charge as legislative session begins

By Mark Fischenich
Special to The Free Press

MANKATO — For the entire legislative careers of most Minnesota Democratic lawmakers, there have been imposing Republican obstacles to their agenda.

Sen. Kathy Sheran and Rep. Kathy Brynaert, both Mankato Democrats elected in 2006, said the rigidity of those Republican barriers is what startled them during their first six years in the Legislature.

"I think that was a surprise to us, that there would be no compromise," Brynaert said.

The first four years, it was Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty who blocked every attempt by the DFL majorities in the House and Senate to increase taxes as part of a broader budget to eliminate state budget shortfalls. Then in 2010, Minnesota's voters picked Democrat Mark Dayton to be the governor but elected Republican legislative candidates in overwhelming numbers, putting them in firm control of the Legislature.

"Dayton made a number of concessions and they didn't make any," Sheran said of Republican legislative leaders two years ago. "That was a surprise to me. Even willing to go into a (state government) shutdown to achieve their agenda."

Republicans countered that their inflexibility was largely focused on one Democratic proposal -- tax increases -- and that they were willing to negotiate on most other topics.

As Brynaert and Sheran opened the 2013 legislative session, the Republican barriers were gone. Dayton has two more years in his first term, and Democrats won large majorities in the House and Senate on Nov. 6.

The situation -- the first time since 1990 that Democrats have the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature -- doesn't mean a conflict-free session, they said. But they were confident that end-of-session negotiations in the spring over the state's two year budget (and how to eliminate a $1.1 billion shortfall) would involve compromises and result in a more balanced solution.

"We won't see absolutes," Sheran said. "I think we'll see people saying, "What are we trying to get done and what are the best ways to get there?" And take the very best ideas from everybody."

Brynaert agreed, while adding that the Democratic victory on Nov. 6 also brings a responsibility to perform.

"We have a sense of hopefulness," Brynaert said. "We feel we have opportunity and expectation on our side. The people of Minnesota expect us to do the work of the state, and we have the opportunity to do that."

Minnesotans shouldn't expect to see complete unity between now and when the session is adjourned, which must occur no later than May 20, according to the Mankato lawmakers.

"For one thing, Democrats aren't known for uniformity of mind even if they are known for uniformity of principle," Brynaert said.

There will be strong disagreements among Democratic lawmakers about spending targets for property tax relief, higher education, health care programs and other parts of the budget many DFLers feel were shortchanged the past 10 years.

There will also be differences between House members, who will face voters again next year and might be looking for quicker results on top priorities, and senators who won't be up for re-election until 2016. Dayton's spending and tax proposals might also differ in key ways from Democratic lawmakers.

Brynaert said those checks and balances were intentionally put into American democracy by the founding fathers.

"Lawmaking isn't meant to be simple and straightforward," she said.

Sheran said the session will also be made more complicated by the desire to provide a long-term fix to Minnesota's recurring red ink, rather than resorting to the short-term borrowing and accounting shifts that have been common in recent years. Ambitions to reform the state's tax system, including reducing the growing burden of property taxes, add another complex task.

So the session may last until the May 20 constitutional adjournment date, Sheran said. There won't, however, be gridlock-induced special sessions or another government shutdown, she said.

And there's at least a slim chance that work could be done in April.

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Sheran said. "I think people would like to do that."