There will be 23 new state representatives when the Minnesota Legislature convenes for the next session come January. But for all the musical chairs, the DFL only picked up two seats. Of course, “only” is a relative term here: The Democrats could have sustained a major loss with all the coming and going. And “only” gets them to 87 out of 134 seats, just three away from a veto-proof majority.
Even so, not all is well at the Capitol. The last legislative session was contentious early on, and the House was especially combative, with Republicans there doing whatever they could to muck up any number of bills as a last line of defense. And that was before Gov. Tim Pawlenty made good on his threat of using a “taxpayer protection pen” and went on a veto binge.
To top it off, in case you haven’t heard, the economy stinks. Budget forecasts last session projected a state budget deficit that, when counting for inflation, could be as much as $2 billion. So, what’s the mood of the Democrats?
“We feel very good,” Rep. Tony Sertich, the House majority leader from Chisholm, said Wednesday morning. “We have the largest majority in the House of Representatives in 30 years.”
As for the notion of hitting the veto-proof number of 90 seats, Sertich didn’t sound at all defeated. “You always want to win every race and get to a super- majority,” he added. “We’re very happy with our numbers.”
And his colleagues do have a super majority in the Senate. But if the DFLers in St. Paul think they’re in charge — and Sertich was typically careful not to showboat — they might want to remember what one fine mess we’re in.
“There’s probably not a lot of money to do much, and right now you can’t raise taxes,” said David Schultz, who teaches politics and government at Hamline University in St. Paul. “I think it’s defense for both sides.”
Coming together in conflict?
Schultz puts a win-win on his scorecard for both parties. “I’m actually going to say it’s not bad for Democrats in what should have been a strong year, but they didn’t lose any momentum,” he said. “And the Republicans in Minnesota did pretty well. They managed to hold on, and not have a two-thirds majority [for Democrats] in both houses.”
But will the two make nice? Sertich spoke much of cooperation — “it is always our intention to work in a bipartisan way” — but clearly feels his party has a mandate of sorts.
“We’ve had a productive two years of our majority, and we’ll be focusing on our agenda,” he said. “There are Democrats and support in every corner of the state now — north, south, east and west.”
Schultz, for one, wonders if there really is a cooperative spirit in the air, given the budget problem. “Potential conflicts like this sometimes forces all the parties to come together,” Schultz offered. “But there is more of a recipe for Democrats to push their agenda.”
Which is exactly what Republican leadership is bracing for, if Rep. Pat Garofalo, the assistant minority whip from Farmington, reflects the mood of his party.
“Elections matter, and they are in total control,” Garofalo said. “Obviously the Legislature is even more on the side of spending money. It’s really up to the Democrats.”
As for the DFL inching ever closer to a veto-proof majority, Garofalo took a philosophical view. “Obviously, this year was a hostile environment for Republicans,” he said. “The big deal for us is being able to sustain the governor’s veto.”
As for what the upcoming session may hold, Garofalo sounded somewhat deflated, but not quite defeated, maybe even defiant. “Part of me says they’ll be pragmatic, but I think we’ll all agree that Democrats cannot say ‘no’ to their friends, and they’re going have a lot of friends asking for things,” he said. “But we’re going to have this huge-ass deficit, and if their solution is a huge-ass tax increase, it’s going to get vetoed.”
Playing ball with Pawlenty
Then there is the matter of the governor, who in recent years has likened himself to a hockey goalie, just keeping what he deems bad legislation out of the net. To continue his hockey metaphor, the latest elections pretty much put the Democrats on permanent power play.
The way Schultz sees it, if Pawlenty still has national political aspirations, he’s going to have to be tough and cooperative at the same time. “He’s a little bit bowed coming out of the VP consideration, and the Democrats might try to embarrass him if he’s going to run for a third term as governor or run for the presidency,” Schultz said. “He’s going to need some sort of accomplishment. He’s going to have to hold the line on taxes. But he’s going to have to figure out how to compromise.”
Sertich waved an olive branch, of sorts. Will there be hostility out of the gate? “I’d try not to look at it that way, we’d like to sit down with the governor right away,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the chance would be to engage in that a lot earlier this year, with the deficit on the horizon.”
Oh, the budget problem: that could be the great equalizer. “It’s not like everyone’s running around thinking there’s a budget surplus,” Schultz concluded. “But you might see the governor using the proverbial veto pen even more than he has in the past.”
Could the Democrats, Republicans and even the governor ease up and be conciliatory? “If they’re in the mood, I think so,” said Garofalo, figuring up the number of Republicans in the House. “The problems are too big for one party to solve. It’s just not realistic for 47 people to stop every bad Democrat idea.”
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.