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The 6 biggest state politics stories of 2014

Senate Office Building
Courtesy of the House Rules Committee
A three-floor building with offices for all 67 state senators somehow managed to become the ultimate symbol for the 2014 year in state politics.

1. Minimum wage: When the dust settled this spring on the two year debate over increasing Minnesota’s minimum wage, advocates of a more progressive wage standard — mostly labor unions and House Democrats — celebrated what seemed like a decisive victory. Despite differences with the more conservative Senate Democrats, they managed to push the minimum wage from $6.15 per hour to $9.50 by 2016 and won a provision to automatically index the wage to inflation starting in 2018. In theory, indexing the wage would put an end to the long, storied history of wage debates in St. Paul. But cautious senators included a caveat in the proposal that allows future governors to suspend indexing the minimum wage if it looks like the economy is heading for a substantial downturn. Democrats have downplayed the impact of the provision, but during the 2014 governor’s race, all of the Republican candidates said they would suspend indexing if they won. Future Republicans governors are likely to do the same.

2. The Senate office building: A three-floor building with offices for all 67 state senators — presently under construction on the north side of the state Capitol building — somehow managed to become the ultimate symbol of the year in state politics. In the beginning, the building represented the not-so-perfect working relationship between Democrats in control of the Legislature and the governor’s office. It was a priority for Senate Democrats, who needed a place to office during a disruptive Capitol restoration. For Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats, it was a troublesome project that became a critical bargaining chip to win other concessions. Later on the campaign trail, the building became the perfect mascot for House Republicans’ talking points against Democrats. Many say the project crystallized the Republicans message in rural Minnesota, where the party picked up enough seats to take back control of the lower chamber. 

3. MNsure: 2014 was the year Democrats finally managed to — mostly — get their arms around the unruly process of building a health insurance exchange. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Just before the start of the year, the executive director of the exchange resigned and a new CEO, Scott Leitz, took the reins. He promised to improve the technical glitches that plagued the exchange the year before, and for some time, the program seemed poised to glide into the election season with no major bad news. But by September, PreferredOne, the plan with many of the cheapest options on MNsure, decided to pull out of the exchange for 2015. When state leaders announced the new rates on MNsure in October, observers were surprised to see only an average increase of 4.5 percent (though some enrollees in rural parts of the state saw much higher increases in their premiums; and some observers looked askance at the way the state calculated the 4.5 percent figure). Open enrollment also went much smoother in December than it did one year ago, with new enrollees set to get coverage starting Jan. 1. 

4. The Republican Party isn’t back. Yet. The 2014 election was supposed to be the year the Republican Party of Minnesota got its groove back. Party leaders touted an uptick in donations to help them crawl out of a high watermark of $2 million debt, and they had put a renewed emphasis on grassroots infrastructure to support their endorsed candidates. But within the first half hour of polls closing on election night, the GOP-endorsed candidates for governor and U.S. Senate were defeated decisively

5. Metro versus rural tensions: It’s a common theme Minnesota politics: metro area projects and school districts get the most state funding while the rural districts are forgotten. And by all accounts, tapping into rural fears that they were being left behind worked extraordinarily well on the campaign trail this fall. The theme is almost certain to continue as the new rural-dominated Republican caucus takes the reins in the House in 2015. 

6. The swinging of the House: Another election cycle in Minnesota, another year the Minnesota House of Representatives flipped control from one party to another (it has happened three election cycles in a row). Did House Republicans have the right message? Did the 2013 votes to legalize gay marriage vote doom Democrats? Is this just the way it’s going to be from now on? There’s a line of thought among political operatives that the latter is the case from here on out, as Democrats continue to struggle turning out their base in off-year elections. The Senate is relatively safe from this boom and bust phenomenon: they’re not on the ballot in a midterm election until 2022.

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