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House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen: ‘First job is fixing the budget long term’

“Our goal really is to govern well, and hopefully with transparency and focused on the basics,” the DFL leader says.

House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen: "The more that we can talk through things and the more ideas we can share, the stronger the final product is going to be."
MinnPost photo by James Nord

As DFLers prepare to take back control of both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature, House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen sat down with MinnPost to discuss what he considers priorities for the coming session.

Thissen, a member of the House since 2002, has served as minority leader during the last two years.

Here’s an edited transcript of the Friday conversation:

MinnPost: Now that committee leadership is finalized, what are you looking forward to this session? What’s next?

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Paul Thissen: At the very highest level, our goal really is to govern well, and hopefully with transparency and focused on the basics, and so the first job is going to be getting the budget in line once and for all in a structurally balanced way, and we’re very much committed to that …

I do think the discussion around broad tax reform that’s going to get us a tax system that reflects where we are today as an economy is going to be significant, and … we do need to make a real emphasis on education and, I think, particularly higher education and the early education stuff. And the last thing is we have this health exchange that we need to get on very quickly.

MP: Those would be the critical pieces of the DFL agenda this session?

PT: They would be priorities, sure.

MP: How do you anticipate moving forward with those priorities with members of your caucus and with the new chairs of the committees?

PT: One of the reasons we wanted … to move quickly on that was so that our chairs can start engaging with the administration, with their counterparts in the Senate and start really thinking through, “OK, where do we need to go?” I hope that we can get a lot of work done here in the next six weeks before the session starts.

At the end of the day, all of those things — the education piece and how we make investments in education, and the tax piece and how we do that tax reform — it all comes back to setting up a budget that’s going to allow Minnesota to have a stable budget and a growth budget, a budget that’s going to be able to grow with our economy and also encourage our economy to grow, and those two things go hand in hand.

MP: At the end of this two-year biennium, can we expect to see the chronic structural budget deficits solved, then?

PT: That is what our goal is, yes, to get that structural budget in hand and put in place the plans to make sure that that is going to be lasting over the long term.

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MP: You mentioned investing in higher education. That’s not something that comes up as often at the Capitol. Are we going to see anything out of the ordinary in terms of higher ed?

PT: There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on … right now outside the legislative process around higher ed. The business community is getting very engaged. The new leadership at [the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system] and at the University of Minnesota have been very engaged in rethinking how they’re going to deliver on their mission.

There are really three things that I think we need to focus on in that area. One is making sure that higher education in its many forms is accessible and affordable to people, and so that’ll be a critical point. And I think the leadership in the university systems believe the same thing. The second thing is this work that’s going on [to align] our systems with what employers need. This workforce development piece is going to be really critical. And the third piece is more University of Minnesota, I suppose, but it’s making sure that we’re investing in research and development and particularly in the places where we have strengths in research and development, both within our university system and in our economy at large that is going to position our economy going forward. So those are kind of the three big buckets that we need to focus our attention on.

MP: Can we expect to see a bonding bill this session?

PT: Our members are very interested in moving forward on a bonding bill, and I think there are a lot of projects that have already been vetted. Interest rates right now continue to be kind of near historic lows, and it gets people to work. There are advantages to doing that, so I would expect that a bonding bill will move through the process, and we’re obviously going to want to work very closely with the Republicans on coming up with a package that is reasonable to them and serves the needs of their communities as well. … Hopefully we’re going to work together in a whole variety of areas, but that’s one area where we certainly are going to have a very bipartisan package.

MP: Are we going to see tax increases? The governor, obviously, campaigned on it.

PT: My goal with the tax reform is twofold. One is that it has to be part of the larger budget discussion — and we are going to have cuts, as well, that we’re going to have to do. Part of tax reform is making sure that our budget works. The other part of it is kind of looking at all aspects of it, so I really hope we don’t go down the path of pulling out one type of tax and focusing simply on that.

I think what the commissioner of revenue has been talking about, which is the three legs of the stool [income, property and sales taxes] and then within each of those legs, if you will, the different pieces that add up, we’ve got to balance all of that. So, should we look at reductions or streamlining in some of the business taxes? You know, I think that that’s true. Should we look at tax fairness? Absolutely, but you can get at tax fairness in any number of ways. You can talk about having folks making over $1 million paying a little bit more. I think that’s a legitimate part of the discussion. But on the other hand, if we start to drive property taxes down for middle class families, that also balances out that equity, so my hope is that we have a broad and comprehensive discussion of tax reform and it doesn’t become just about pulling one piece of the tax system out.

MP: Can we anticipate a larger budget overall?

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PT: I think we need to focus in on priorities, so the thing that everybody first has to remember is that we still continue to face a budget deficit … That’s going to be fairly significant, particularly when you take into account the fact that we do have this obligation we have to pay back to the schools …

Republicans have asked this legitimately as well, but, what often happens is you kind of pick out a number and say, “This is the budget, and we’ve got to fit it within this budget number, right?” What I hope that we do is actually kind of step back from that a little bit and say, “Where are the things that we can make investments in that are going to make us grow our economy over the long term and do better for the people of Minnesota, and where are those places that we can … continue to scale back where they’re not serving their purposes?” …

I know there’s going to be lots of demands. Part of that is because people see that Democrats are in charge, but part of it is because we have lived kind of through fairly austere times for the last decade and there is pent-up demand, and we’re going to look at all of those requests very carefully and see how does this fit in with the Minnesota that’s going to be prosperous a decade from now?

MP: How do you plan on balancing such a diverse caucus that includes some more moderate suburban Democrats?

PT: We’re going to continue to have the same kind of discussions that we need to have as a state within our caucus. The new folks that came, we do have a more moderate caucus, I don’t think anybody would disagree with that … I anticipate they’re going to have a big learning curve, obviously, but they’re also going to have a big voice in the direction that we head …  I think it’ll be good for our caucus to have this new blood coming in and engaging us and breaking us out of our stale ways of thinking, perhaps, sometimes.

MP: Some of the more outspoken members of the House have criticized Gov. Dayton for not working well with DFL lawmakers. How do you expect that relationship to be going forward?

PT: I feel like my relationship with the governor is really strong and has gotten stronger over the last two years as we’ve gotten to know each other better. One of the reasons we wanted to get our chairs and our committees set relatively early — and I also think this is true of the Senate DFL — is we want those folks to start engaging with the administration now, as soon as possible …

When you have challenging times … the ability to come at it from at least a shared-values perspective and not get into ideological fights that get in the way of problem-solving, I think that that’s going to be a real advantage to us … Because the more that we can talk through things and the more ideas we can share, the stronger the final product is going to be.

MP: Overreach came up really quickly after the election. Is that something you’re concerned about, and is that question fair?

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PT: I don’t know if it’s a particularly fair frame to view it through. I can see where people would be worried about that, but it kind of has assumptions built into it. What we really want to do, again, is first focus on governing well …. I am very much — and I think our caucus is very much — committed to taking on some of the big challenges we face in this state, some that have been lingering for a long time. And if people view that ambition to take on those big challenges as overreaching, then maybe we are. But are we going to make sure that everybody’s voices are included? That is also a commitment that we have.