Dems and Republicans differ on whether the session was a success

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Weary lawmakers quit the State Capitol shortly after midnight on Monday (May 20) after setting a two-year, $38 billion state budget.

“I think it worked extraordinarily well for Minnesota,” Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said of DFL control of state government.

capitol.jpgFinal pieces of the five-month session slipped into place in the waning hours with lawmakers passing a tax-the-rich style $2 billion tax increase bill and a $177 million bonding bill that slates $109 million to State Capitol restoration.

“I think it was propitious,” Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, said of the water that seeped into the State Capitol tunnel over the stormy weekend.

Hours earlier an $800 million bonding bill had crashed on the House floor, and Newton believes the seeping water served as a damp reminder of unfinished work on the Capitol building.

Dayton would have liked to have seen the House bonding bill signed into law.

“I don’t get all I want. Nobody does,” he said sagely.

The 2013 session was touched by history, and made it.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre had lawmakers examining gun control. But many Greater Minnesota Democrats, as well as Republicans, were wary of universal background checks, closing perceived gun-show loopholes, and legislative leaders scuttled the initiative late in the session .

But history took place at the State Capitol over a series of days in May that saw House and Senate, in some of the most powerful, emotional, and controversial debate in years, pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

“I think the enormity of this (marriage) bill cannot be overstated,” Dayton said at the time.

Five Republicans, including Sen. Branden Petersen of Andover and Representatives Pat Garofalo of Farmington and  Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie,  joined Democrats in making Minnesota the 12th state, effective Aug. 1, in which same-sex couples can legally marry.

Six thousand people witnessed Dayton sign the marriage legislation into law on a sunny, hot afternoon outside the State Capitol.

“How will Minnesota react to this? — I don’t know,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.

“It is what it is,” he said of the divisive issue.

“Frankly, we’re more concerned about what is going to happen to Minnesota’s economy,” Daudt said.

But it wasn’t the marriage bill but legislation regarding possible child care and personal care attendant unionization that monopolized House and Senate floor debate.

Senate Republicans debated the bill 17 hours, while House Republicans, mindful of their Senate colleagues robust efforts, armed themselves with about 120 amendments and sporadically debated the legislation over several days.

Passage of the emotionally-charged bill had a few House Republicans shouting insults at House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, as cheers erupted from union activists in the House gallery.

Democrats are even-toned.

“All I did was vote to allow them (child care providers and personal care attendants) to hold a vote,” Rep. John Benson, DFL-Minnetonka, said. “And if the opposition is as strong as they (opponents) say it is, they’ll never have a union,” he said.

One issue of great importance to business, a proposed minimum wage increase, was set aside by legislative leaders.

House Democrats proposed increasing the state minimum wage about $2 higher than Senate Democrats did.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, expects lawmakers to take up the minimum wage next session.

He spoke of simply running out time this session.

Thissen called the delay a “shame.”

Another issue scheduled to resurface when lawmakers return to the State Capitol on Feb. 25 — at least in the mind of Bakk — is the sales-tax expansion contained in the tax bill.

“Sales-tax reform is really hard,” Bakk said, appearing with Dayton, Thissen, and other legislative at the State Capitol on Tuesday (May 21) morning.

Lawmakers will continue to explore the provision extending the state sales tax to warehousing, Bakk said. They’ll learn more about the extension, which does not go into effect until April, 2014, over upcoming months, he said.

The tax bill contains “glitches,” Bakk said. Specifically, he pointed to the expansion of the state sales tax to maintenance work on farm machinery.

“We got one little clinker in there,” he said.

But Democratic leaders, rather than shying away from the tax bill, embrace it.

Dayton called the $1 billion tax increase on the wealthy, upper two percent of tax filers a “progressive tax increase.” He heralded the $2 billion in tax increases as bolstering education, providing property tax relief and providing other boosts to the middle class.

“It’s what government should be doing,” Dayton said.

But Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, lead Republican on the House Tax Committee, appraised things differently.

“This session was a disaster for the taxpayers of Minnesota,” he said.

Davids styled the new fourth-tier income tax rate as “punishing success.”

Even smokers got hit with new taxes, Davids said.

But Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, looks at the $485 million in new spending in E-12 education and $250 million in higher education as meeting needs.

“I think we exceeded expectations in investments in education. In my area, that’s (education funding) really, really important,” she said.

One initiative Democrats look to developing over upcoming months is transportation.

Dayton and other Democrats speak of fostering public dialogue over the future of transportation, and making clear the benefits the public can expect if agreeable to transportation tax increases.

Transportation-funding advocates express frustration.

“Without new funding from the Legislature, hundreds of miles of critical road, bridge and transit projects will not be built, upgraded, or expanded,” said Mike Sheehan, co-chair of Progress in Motion, in a press release.

In general, Democrats and Republicans treated each other congenially this past session.

“It’s tough to be in the minority,” Daudt said.

“All in all, I think we ended here on a respectful note. And I think that’s important,” he said.

As Daudt stood on the House floor after close of session, Democrats walked by and shook hands.

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com

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