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A session of compromise

Published (5/25/2012)
By Nick Busse
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Rep. Mike LeMieur, left, jokes with his seatmates on the House floor during his May 10 farewell speech.  (Photo by Andrew VonBank)If Minnesotans remember just one thing about the 2012 legislative session, it will likely be the controversial $498 million public subsidy for the new “People’s Stadium” to house the Minnesota Vikings. Lawmakers nearly ran out the legislative clock gathering support for the new NFL facility, which some call a boon and others call a boondoggle.

But the stadium was only one piece of a much broader agenda this year: creating jobs. Lawmakers from both parties came into the 2012 session pledging to focus like a laser on that issue. And as usual, they had very different ideas of how to go about it.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) and Republican legislators hoped to make 2012 all about cutting red tape, and focused on reigning in complex business regulations. They proposed a package of government streamlining initiatives that they labeled “Reform 2.0.” They also brought forward a tax relief package aimed largely at businesses.

“If you free up the entrepreneurs, the hard-working women and men of our great state, they’ll build an economy that is sustainable,” Zellers said in a pre-session interview.

Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislative leaders called for a more traditional jobs plan — a $775 million capital investment bill that would give a boost to the state’s anemic construction industry. Dayton also called for an up-or-down vote on a new stadium to house the Minnesota Vikings, which he argued would provide a source of jobs and revenue that would last for decades. The fate of that proposal seemed far less certain when the Legislature convened on Jan. 24.

“It’s going to be something that we need to give a full and robust debate to,” was all House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) would say on the subject.

In the end, these competing agendas set the stage for the session’s three major jobs bills: the bonding bill, the tax bill and the stadium bill.

Only two of the three survived.

After weeks of wrangling over its price tag, lawmakers passed and Dayton signed a $496 million bonding bill in the final days of the session. The $975 million public-private stadium project also passed the House and Senate floors, despite protests from critics who complained that the bill’s details were negotiated behind closed doors.

Both the stadium and the bonding bills were passed with DFLers shouldering the bulk of the “yes” votes. Republican leaders allowed the votes to take place in spite of intense disagreements within their own caucus about the wisdom of increasing the state’s debt load.

And so it was doubly disappointing to many Republicans when their own signature job-creation bill, the tax bill, was vetoed.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers adjourns the House sine die with the last gavel of the 2012 legislative session. (Photo by Andrew VonBank) In fact, the Republicans’ would-be package of property tax cuts aimed primarily at businesses was vetoed twice, even after they reworked it to address many of Dayton’s concerns. Republican leaders accused Dayton of negotiating in bad faith.

“Unfortunately, Governor Dayton and the Democrats in the Minnesota Legislature do not share our goal of making Minnesota a better place to do business,” Zellers said in a post-session press release.

Democrats, however, said the Republican tax plan would have grown the deficit in the next biennium. They offered their own, alternate take on how the session ended.

“This session Republicans ran a do-nothing legislature except when Democrats took the lead,” Thissen said in a press release.

Competing agendas, narratives

From a far enough distance, the 2012 legislative session might look like an example of bipartisan success.

The two biggest bills (at least from a fiscal perspective) were the Vikings stadium and the bonding bill; both passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support. But the deep ideological divide that dragged the state into a government shutdown in 2011 remained just as powerful in 2012.

One of the session’s biggest partisan battles took place in April, when Republican lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment to require photo ID for voting without a single DFL vote. All but one Republican legislator voted in favor of the measure, which will appear as a question on this November’s ballot.

Partisan differences also killed a number of the Republicans’ other top priorities, such as the “Last-in, First-out” teacher layoff reform bill. Dayton vetoed the measure, along with tort reform legislation and a number of proposed changes to collective bargaining for public employees.

Including the 2011 special session, out of the 311 bills the Republican-controlled Legislature passed since January 2011, Dayton has vetoed 54 — more than the previous governor vetoed in his entire first term.

“We had a governor that was very uncooperative,” said House Majority Leader Matt Dean (R-Dellwood). “Unfortunately, we ran into a lot of vetoes.”

In spite of this, Republicans prefer to take the long view, focusing on what they’ve accomplished in total since they took control of the Legislature less than two years ago.

“We took a state that was $6.2 billion in deficit, a government that was out of control in a lot of different areas… and took it in a remarkably different direction,” Zellers said.

DFL leaders have a more positive take on the outcome of this session, and claim much of the credit for its achievements.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson Sr. cleans out his desk in the early morning hours of May 10, the last day of the 2012 session. Carlson has served in the Legislature for 40 years. (Photo by Andrew VonBank) Thissen argues Republicans balanced the budget last year on the backs of the middle class, and he derided this year’s vetoed tax bill as a giveaway to businesses at the expense of ordinary Minnesotans. He also faulted Republicans for focusing their energies on divisive constitutional amendments.

As for Dayton, with the exception of the capital investment bill and the stadium bill, “I’d say the session was disappointing overall, salvaged by those two major jobs bills at the end,” he said.

The Legislature is likely to look very different next year. Twenty-six of the House’s 134 members have already announced they’re not coming back; the same goes for 13 of the state’s 67 senators. Legislators who do intend to return will all be campaigning in newly redrawn districts.

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