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When the 6 ‘G’ issues take over, there’s no controlling the legislative agenda

DFL Sen. Dave Tomassoni lists the ones that overwhelm all others: Guns, Gays, God, Government, Gambling and Greed.

When guns, gays, God, government, gambling or greed come before the Legislature, don't expect much else to get attention.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

There was a bit of a lull in the storm that usually surrounds the gun control debate Thursday evening, but as one of the “six G” issues, the calm won’t last.

tomassoni portrait
Sen. Dave Tomassoni

Guns represent one of the six “Gs’’ that Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, says guarantees the sort of debate that typically overwhelm all other issues.

His “Gs”: Guns, Gays, God, Government (especially government regulations), Gambling and Greed.

“I just added ‘greed’ this year,” said Tomassoni.

In Tomassoni’s mind, greed can be found in all Republican measures to support the wealthy, while doing nothing to help the less fortunate.

Efforts to block raising the minimum wage in the state are a classic example of the newest “G,” Tomassoni believes.

But it’s hard to match the emotion of the gun issue.

Compromise gun bill clears committee

With little discussion Thursday, the House Public Safety Committee forwarded a bill to the House floor that would take a big step toward closing the loophole that allows guns to be sold at gun shows without background checks.

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But moving the bill out of committee on a 10-8 vote only has set the stage for what will be a long, rancorous debate when the bill does reach the floor, probably late in the session.

Clearly the Gs have never been more prevalent than in this session, with guns and gay marriage threatening to overwhelm all other issues, including those that most legislative leaders believe should have much higher visibility.

DFL leaders, for example, would like Minnesotans to be focusing on the party’s efforts to increase funding for education while balancing the state budget.  They’d also like to be receiving pats on the back for passing the state’s health insurance exchange.

GOP leaders, on the other hand, believe that Minnesotans should be paying more attention to the health exchange and DFL efforts to raise taxes on the “job providers.’’

“The exchange is going to have an impact on every person in the state,’’ said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood. “But I can’t get five people to read what’s in it.”

G issues’ emotional impact

No problem, however, finding thousands of people with strong opinions on either side of the gun issues or the gay-marriage debate.

Dean has first-hand knowledge of the emotional impact of the G issues.

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Rep. Matt Dean

When Republicans were in the majority in the House and Senate, Dean was the House majority leader.  No matter how often he talked of the GOP’s focus on “jobs and the economy,” the headlines went to the GOP’s push to put the marriage amendment and the voting amendment on the ballot.

Additionally, GOP efforts to get their economic message heard were hampered by all the noise surrounding the Vikings’ stadium last session. That issue, recall, includes one of the Gs: gambling.

Dean looked back to a year ago, when Republicans wanted to talk about government reform and the economy but reporters kept asking about the stadium.

“At one point, we [the GOP caucus] talked about putting on purple jerseys and walking right through the press offices,” Dean said, laughing.

The hope was that reporters would follow the purple-clad Republicans to a news conference in which they would talk about their reform ideas.

The simple fact is, no matter how hard they try, politicians simply can’t control the message — and legislative leaders can’t totally control which issues will make it to the floor.

“Everybody has the same election certificate,” said former Rep. Tom  Rukavina, the colorful populist from Virginia. “If you have an election certificate, you have as much right as the next guy to bring forward your bills.”

Rukavina: G issues are hardest

Rukavina does admit that the G issues often are the hardest for politicians, who may be stuck in an awkward spot over personal convictions and the will of their constituents and the will of party leaders.

“There’s no winning,” he said.

Rukavina, who retired after last session, feels empathy for Iron Range legislators on this session’s gay marriage issue in particular. He noted that those legislators represent districts which tend to have high numbers of Catholics and Christian fundamentalists.

Gay marriage, obviously, brings in two of the Gs: Gays and God.

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Former Rep. Tom Rukavina

“If you’re going to vote for it,” Rukavina said, “you’d better be upfront about it. Whenever I’d do something like that, I’d go to the meetings back in the district and say, ‘This one matters to me, and this is why. You’ve got to give me a pass on this one.’ ”

Guns, though, are a different matter in the Range districts and many other rural districts, Rukavina said.  It would be tough for many rural — and probably all Range — pols to get a pass on the gun bill that moved out of the House committee Thursday evening.

The gun bill passed on a 10-8 vote, with Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, voting with all seven Republicans against the measure.

Although this bill falls far short of the bill he’d pushed so hard, Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, allowed himself a few moments of joy when the vote was tallied.

To move any gun bill out of committee took a lot of will, compromise and a little legislative razzle-dazzle. (In this case, the guts of the bill are in an amendment that the NRA opposes. The amendment includes the language that would put tougher restrictions on sales at guns shows.)

Pushback surprises Paymar

Paymar knew a gun bill calling for universal background checks would draw lots of heat, but he didn’t expect the amount of pushback he received.

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Rep. Michael Paymar

“I thought after Newtown and the shooting at Accent [Signage in Minneapolis], getting universal background checks would have been an easy vote,” Paymar said. “But the NRA is strong.”

To get even this bill passed by the full House, though, “will be difficult,” Paymar said. It will require a number of suburban Republican legislators to support it.

Those suburban legislators are going to face the all sorts of pressure — from both sides.

Again, the question, why so much public passion over guns and gay marriage, while other important legislative business seems to get attention from few, save the lobbyists?

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, believes these issues get so much public attention because they affect people personally and are relatively simple to understand, compared with big budget bills.

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative Christian organization, said those G issues often go right to basic values of people.

“I always tell people that in state government, individuals can have tremendous impact,” Prichard said. “Every legislator knows that every time an individual calls, that person represents many others who feel the same way.”

Given the tightness of so many legislative races, it’s not hard to understand why the “G issues” make legislators think twice before voting.  People associated with Prichard’s organization are working hard to make sure legislators know that pols’ gay-marriage vote will be a decider for how many individuals choose to vote in the next election.

What’s strange about the G issues is that they don’t seem to be the highest-priority concerns for most Minnesotans, said Ben Golnik, a longtime Republican strategist who now heads a conservative PAC, the Minnesota Jobs Coalition.

“Every survey shows that jobs and the economy are still at the top of the list of priorities for the vast majority of Minnesotans,” he said.

Nonetheless, Golnik admits that it’s the Gs that “fire people up.”

The fires are burning hotter than ever this session.