In a legislative year that likely will be little remembered, there have been stars.
Typically, leaders of the big-ticket items — taxes and bonding — get the biggest media attention. And legislative majority and minority leaders are a constant presence in news stories.
But in all sessions, there are a handful of legislators who carry the toughest bills that have substantial impact on Minnesota’s future.
This year, no legislator has carried a heavier load than Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis. Dibble was the Senate’s lead on two of the session’s most controversial bills, anti-bullying and medical marijuana.
Additionally, Dibble chairs of Senate transportation committee. Along with Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, he has been working to set the stage for a way to fundamentally change the way the state’s transportation infrastructure is funded. That push will begin in earnest in the 2015 session, when the Democrats will still run the Senate.
Meantime, in the House, there are three members whose work has seemed extraordinary.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who refused to crumble on minimum wages, ultimately got a reluctant Senate to agree to a package that includes a capped inflation index.
Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, was the lead on the “Women’s Economic Security Act,” a combination of bills aimed at cutting into the wage gap between men and women. She also is the lead on medical marijuana in the House, where the going has been extremely tough.
“I said from the beginning, that I’m not willing to do an all-or-nothing approach,” Melin said. “We have to pass something — even if it means some people will be left behind in the time being.”
But by compromising, Melin has not only been attacked from the anti-marijuana crowd, but those who support a far more open bill than Melin is desperately trying to get passed.
The biggest surprise of the session, though, has been the work of Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park.
Schoen’s a first-termer yet in this session he has carried a gun bill (that takes guns from domestic abusers), Steve’s Law (which makes it easier for people to call 911, without fear of penalty, in cases of heroin overdoses) and a bill that stabilizes the role of advanced practice registered nurses (a bill considered critical in Greater Minnesota, where sometimes a medical doctor may not be immediately available).
Schoen, a cop by trade, has gained huge respect on both sides of the aisle for his ability to doggedly work for bipartisan support.
GOP: harder to shine, but some do
What of the Republicans?
Given their minority status in both chambers, it’s hard for GOP legislators to shine. That’s especially true in this era when Republican politicians fear the backlash of activists in their own party who attack those who appear “moderate.”
Most Republicans, then, have spent most of the session setting their sights on next November’s elections.
Still, there have been instances in which GOP legislators have played important hands-across-the-aisle roles.
For example, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who usually is the GOP’s go-to guy on all 2nd Amendment issues, stood with Schoen on the bill that takes guns from abusers.
Rep. Jennifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, worked with Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, to allow Minnesota liquor stores to be open on Sundays, even if the effort failed for the umpteenth time.
And Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, is a first-termer who gets solid marks from a wide variety of people for genuine efforts to set party dogma aside and work on policy.
‘No, you weren’t screaming’
Still, for better or worse (depending on your political point of view), this has been a DFL session featuring DFLers in the starring roles.
Dibble, Winkler, Melin and Schoen share a genuine passion for the bills they’ve carried, which doesn’t mean they show that passion with flaming rhetoric on the floor. Dibble and Schoen seem to go out of their way to avoid rhetoric.
Dibble becomes almost monotone on the floor when he introduces controversial bills and when he counters criticism from those who oppose him.
“Two things on being emotional: Sometimes, when I feel like I’ve become emotional and started screaming at people, others tell me, ‘No, you weren’t screaming.’ That tells me that what I’m feeling doesn’t come out. That must be the Scandinavian in me,” Dibble said.
“Secondly, on being emotional: Especially when you’re dealing with controversial issues, I find it is far more effective to be as calm and reasoned and rational as possible.”
Schoen’s approach seems similar. In his presentations on the floor, he tends to be a “just the facts” sort of cop. He’s known for making the necessary compromises to get legislation passed before he presents bills on the floor. During floor debates, he listens intently and responds calmly.
But the calm he shows on the floor is a facade.
The tough cop teared up Thursday when we started speaking about the legislation he’s carried and the Melin’s medical marijuana bill.
Steve’s Law — named in the memory of Steve Rumler, who died of overdose three years ago — not only lessens the fear of calling 911 for help, it allows first responders (think: police) and other non-healthcare providers to carry Naloxone, an antidote to opiate overdoses when used quickly.
“What we do here can actually save lives,” said Schoen of the legislators’ work. “We can’t bring people who have died back, but we can save hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives by what we’ve done.”
Melin, too, gets emotional when speaking of the medical marijuana bill that hits the House floor Friday. The House bill is far more restrictive from the bill passed in the Senate.
But, Melin said, in the legislative process, you get what you can get. For years, any form of medical marijuana has been blocked.
Whenever the going gets tough, Melin said she thinks of a 7-year-old child in her district with a form of epilepsy that has left her debilitated. Meantime, Melin said, a form of medical marijuana treatment has created seemingly miracle results in many cases in other states.
“I feel responsible for this child and for other sick kids,” said Melin. “I’ve taken this on for them.”