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‘Minnesota Calm’ joins ‘Minnesota Nice’ — so far — in Capitol corridors

DFLers say the cordial tone and low-key public response to the GOP’s all-cuts budget rest on two major differences from the Wisconsin situation: Mark Dayton’s presence, and the current vagueness of what programs are really on the chopping block.

So far, Minnesota has seemed a long way from Wisconsin.

The Republicans have released their all-cuts budget and the corridors of the Capitol are not filled with protesters.

Does the calm show Minnesota apathy or acceptance or support?

None of the above, according to DFL legislative leaders.

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House Minority Leader Paul Thissen says the Republican agenda in Minnesota is no different from the plans that are passing in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, but there are two big differences.

“What you’re seeing is a national agenda being pushed down from the national party,” Thissen said. “It’s an effort to divide middle-class, working families. … But the big difference here is that people know we have Mark Dayton.”

Most expect that the DFL governor will block Republican attempts to make deep cuts in such things as higher education and Human Services.

But there’s more than Dayton behind the Minnesota calm, said Sen. Scott Dibble, an assistant minority leader.

Public not aware yet of budget cut impact
The debate in Minnesota has centered on the budget deficit. The budget, as an overall issue, is abstract to most. What do $1.5 billion in cuts to the Department of Human Services really mean? For that matter, what do $200 million in cuts to higher education mean to everyday Minnesotans?

“You can say, in broad strokes, that the public sector does things that don’t really matter,” said Dibble.

But, it’s when you get down to the specifics, that the abstract becomes real.

“Suddenly, you are talking about what people need,” Dibble said.

That’s why DFLers are expressing concern over the Repbulican timeline between release of their targets and their plan to present a detailed all-cuts budget on March 25. DFLers believe that timeframe doesn’t leave enough time to hold all the necessary public hearings and let the public make passionate pleas for why government spending programs provide vitally needed services.

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Often, those hearings create the headlines that help shape budget and policy decisions.

Republicans, of course, deny that they’re looking to cut short public input on their spending proposals. In the most reasonable of tones, they insist that their timeline shows that they came to the Capitol to get their work done.

“We’re focused on the fiscal discussion now,” said House Speaker Kurt Zellers in answer to a number of questions while meeting with reporters this morning.

That answer made it possible for Zellers to avoid talking about many controversial Republican bills that are bubbling beneath the budget deficit, the main storyline of this session.

Budget issue sidelining controversial bills
There are several bills that could be classified as anti-labor in various legislative hoppers. A bunch of them are aimed directly at teachers: bills that would freeze teacher wages, bills that would dramatically change tenure, bills that would severely limit the right of a teachers union to strike.

“Policy bills,” Zellers said in answering questions about those proposals, which would surely raise the heat levels of debates.

Those policy matters “need longer discussion,” Zellers said, and that won’t happen until after budget decisions have been made.

By answering questions about controversial bills in vague ways, Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch are effectively putting a damper on Minnesota political passion.

They’re also doing a good job of talking in positive tones about their relationship with Dayton.

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Yes, they pronounced Dayton’s proposed budget as “dead on arrival.’”

And they also know that their own budget bill is also a non-starter in the governor’s eyes.

But still they talk of how they’re having cordial breakfast meetings with Dayton and that they’re pleased with the bipartisan support he’s shown in supporting an alternative licensure bill and a regulatory-streamlining bill.

There’s been so much cordiality between the governor and the Republican majority that there have been some rumblings at the Capitol that the governor is spending more time with Republicans than with the DFL legislators.

Thissen and Dibble both dismissed the idea that Dayton is out of touch with the DFL caucus.

“We’re having regular breakfast meetings with the governor,” said Thissen.

“We just don’t brag about it,” said Dibble.

“It is important for him to keep communications open with the majority,” said Thissen.

“But we feel loved,” said Dibble, laughing.

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The two even said they understand Dayton’s efforts to work in a bipartisan way with Republicans, even if that means he’s signing bills that likely would not have passed  DFL-controlled legislatures in the body.

“I have great respect for what he’s doing,” Dibble said. “But sometimes it seems like if you give them [the Republicans] an inch, they want to take a mile.”

For now, Republican and DFL legislators are going separate ways.

The Republicans are getting hunkered down in working on the details of those big, broad budget targets. Meantime, DFL legislators, for the second weekend in a row, will be on the road, talking with the public of the “real agenda” that is buried in budget numbers.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.