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DFL legislators, even with full control, will find plenty to fight about

Unified GOP majorities usually voted together last session. New DFL majorities, though, tend to agree on goals but disagree on methods.  

DFLers all agree that the session’s No. 1 priority will be balancing the budget in a sustainable way.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

Forget all that political chatter about how smooth one-party governance will be in Minnesota.  DFLers will have plenty to disagree about this session.

“We’ll have differences,’’ said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “That wasn’t the case the last two years [when Republicans held legislative majorities in both the House and Senate]. In the Senate, you had 37 Republicans.

“I bet if you look back, 99.99 percent of the time they all voted the same way. It was lockstep all the time. All 37 were either completely in favor or completely against anything. We’re not going to be like that.’’

DFLers all agree that the session’s No. 1 priority will be balancing the budget in a sustainable way. But there’s no uniformity of belief on how that should be accomplished.

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In its two years in power, the GOP was virtually unified in believing that a balanced budget should be achieved by cutting the size — and cost — of government.

Differences about how to raise revenue

Most DFLers appear to believe more cuts will be needed, but there’s also an across-the-board consensus that new revenues (tax increases) also will be needed. Differences exist, however, about just what taxes should be increased.

For example, most of the most liberal DFLers, such as Marty, buy into Gov. Mark Dayton’s tax-the-rich approach. Populists from the Iron Range also like that approach. (Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, points out that just 68 people in all of St. Louis County would have been affected by Dayton’s tax proposal.)

But DFL moderates, such as Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka, say the Dayton approach won’t appeal to most of the newly elected DFL moderates from the suburbs. On the other hand, those moderates might find expanding the sales tax to some services and some clothing more appealing than a fourth income-tax tier.

Of course, urban DFLers will team with the Greater Minnesota populists to fight the sales tax approach to new revenue.

Varying DFL views on many issues

Across the board — from the environment, to mining, to agriculture, to business regulation, to gun control, to the timing on considering gay marriage — DFLers have a wide range of views.

This isn’t to say that DFLers won’t work out their differences. They are determined to get their work done, though along the way, there will be some hurt feelings and a few bruises. Even the governor won’t have smooth sailing.

But the DFL majoriiy caucuses won’t look much like the GOP majorities that preceded them.

With the GOP, it was difficult to separate legislators’ views from the party’s platform. In February 2011, Tony Sutton, Republican Party chairman at the time, went so far as to write each member of the GOP caucus, “reminding” them of their pledges not to raise revenues in any form. Republican Party Deputy Chairman Michael Brodkorb, who also worked then within the Senate caucus, was often the orthodoxy enforcer.

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Sen. John Marty
Sen. John Marty

Like the GOP, the DFL has an activist-created platform. But it is hard to imagine party officials attempting to bang its elected officials over the head with platform planks.

In his time as House majority leader, Tony Sertich, who now heads the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said that some of the most energetic debates occurred at House DFL caucus sessions.

“We had full debates long before we ever got to the floor,” Sertich said. “But that’s as it should be. People expect that there’ll be disagreement. It’s the next step – how do you come together?  – that matters.”

Once upon a time, Sertich believes, there was room for a wide range of views within the GOP.  Republican legislators held the same sort of internal debates that DFLers still hold. Those internal debates ultimately helped lead to consensus.

It remains to be seen whether the DFL, now with both legislative and executive power for the first time in more than two decades, can govern in a way that will lead to re-election. But proving to voters they can govern effectively and avoid extremism will be a motivating factor in bringing factions of the party together.

Sertich notes that the same efforts are being played out in 36 other states where one party has legislative and executive control. (In 24 of those states, the GOP has the power.)

In Minnesota, there will be a combination of alliances attempting to come to resolution.

Mining issues cause friction

Mining issues, for example, typically create DFL intra-party friction between Iron Range legislators and urban liberals. Typically, the Rangers have the support of many in the GOP as they push for more jobs and fewer regulations regarding mining.

Melin, a potential rising DFL star, has some hope that frac-sand mining in southeastern Minnesota will create even more empathy for Range views on pushing ahead more quickly on mining.

Rep. Carly Melin
Rep. Carly Melin

“It’s nice to see another part of the state where mining resources can have a big impact,” Melin said. “We have to understand that our natural resources can create jobs that China can’t take away.”

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What remains to be seen is where those new, moderate, suburban DFLers will land on issues surrounding mining. Those newbies often wave pro-business flags, but they also represent areas that tend to have green leanings as well.

Another huge issue on the Range and throughout Greater Minnesota is the reliance on property taxes to fund education. That tax, in areas where property values are low, simply is not working.  But in the suburbs, jammed with high property values, there is far less concern.

Efforts to create tighter gun laws are likely to bring together suburban and urban DFLers. But an alliance of Greater Minnesota DFLers and Republicans will make substantive change difficult. (Dayton already has shown little desire to get involved in an effort to tighten state gun laws.)

And then there is the gay marriage issue. The last thing that some DFLers want to do is wade deeply into the headline-grabbing issue.

“First, always first, is the budget,” Bonoff says.

Timing an issue on gay-marriage vote

Yet, in the next breath, the suburban DFLer said that she and many others in her caucus believe that the DFL returned to majority status because of the gay marriage issue. Suburban fiscal moderates generally are socially progressive, and they adamantly rejected the GOP’s marriage amendment.

 Perhaps the majority of DFL legislators would like to wait a bit on changing Minnesota law until the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decisions on marriage cases currently before the court. But those decisions aren’t expected until June, after the session wraps up. Can DFLers hold back the pressure to act now?

In some ways, this issue puts the DFL majorities in the same tight spot their Republican peers were a year ago. Even though cooler Republican heads wanted to focus on budget issues, the party base was pushing for the marriage amendment NOW.  The base got what it wanted in the short term – and political defeat in the long term.

Obviously, DFLers are hoping to avoid that fate. But it won’t be easy. There is much to disagree about.

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Marty, one of the few legislators still around from the last time the DFL had control of both legislatives bodies and the governor’s office, recalled a piece of legislation that sailed to Gov. Rudy Perpich’s desk.

He vetoed it,’’ said Marty, laughing. “But we overrode his veto.”