Minnesota lawmakers gavel in the 2015 legislative session on Tuesday facing a daunting to-do list, including crafting a $40 billion plus budget and fixing the state’s aging transportation system. And they must accomplish it all with divided government. Here are some of the top policies, personalities and other dynamics to watch for as the 2015 political season kicks off:
Metro vs. outstate
The most expected theme of the 2015 legislative session was set before the 2014 election results were even finalized. House Republicans had Greater Minnesota voters to thank for their victory — they picked up 10 of the 11 seats they gained in outstate Minnesota — and they knew it. Since then, Republicans have split up the environment and agriculture committee into two separate entities, and added two committees: the Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee; and the Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee. DFL Rep. Jean Wagenius, former chair of the combined agriculture and environment committee, was bounced from the new GOP-led environment committee altogether, a move that miffed Democrats and environmental activists. Democrats already seem to be fashioning a 2016 campaign theme that claims Republicans aren’t fighting for the entire state. One factor to watch will be how these tensions continue to play out.
The transportation debate
Both Republicans and Democrats say addressing the state’s lagging transportation system is a top priority next session, but how they go about trying to fix problem will be one of the central dramas of the 2015 political season. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Democrats in control of the Senate say there’s not enough money available in the budget to address transportation needs across the state, which the governor’s own administration puts as high as $6 billion over the next 10 years. But Republicans in control of the House say passing any kind of gas tax increase in the upcoming session is unlikely. Other groups are starting to weigh in, too: the Republican Party is saying no to new revenues, while the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says improvements can be paid for with new user fees and more money in the state’s budget dedicated to transportation. The question of priorities — namely, outstate roads and bridges verses metro-area transit projects — will also be part of the debate. The new chair of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee is significant in that sense: Rep. Tim Kelly currently doesn’t serve on any transportation committees, though he is from Red Wing.
DFL Sen. Tom Bakk
If the last two years were any indication, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is an independent operator. Even when the DFL controlled both chambers of the Legislature, he clashed with House Democrats and Gov. Mark Dayton on everything from bonding to the minimum wage to a new Senate office building. With that in mind, it’s not wise to assume he will immediately align himself with Dayton on the governor’s priorities. In fact, Bakk occupies some common ground with the new Republican-led House, including support for the PolyMet Mining project on the Iron Range. What’s more, Bakk has had his door open to business groups in the state since he was first elected majority leader.
Dayton hasn’t said much about his agenda since he was re-elected this fall, but he’s made this much clear: He plans to make his last four years in the governor’s office count, and has already dubbed his approach as “Dayton unbound.” Yes, Dayton has a Republican House and a DFL Senate to work with, but that doesn’t mean the governor can’t set the terms of the debate. Dayton will be the first to unveil his budget plan in late January, for instance, and that will almost certainly include some kind of new revenue for transportation projects across the state.
Kurt Daudt and the new House GOP
Everyone seems to agree that incoming Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt is an easy guy to work with, earning high praise from DFL leaders and Republicans alike. The big unknown factor is the how he manages his new caucus, as well as how conservative this caucus will lean. There’s also a question of how dedicated the more seasoned members of Daudt’s own caucus will be this session. Daudt, who is heading into only his third term in the House, was challenged for the speaker job by two more experienced legislators in a five-hour meeting in November.
How much attention will education policy get?
It’s not obvious — lawmakers have a big transportation debate ahead, a surplus to spend and a budget bill to craft — but education might get some major attention in 2015. It’s been brewing quietly, but House Republicans want to push an substantial education policy agenda to try and address Minnesota’s achievement gap between white students and racial minorities. Expect Republican lawmakers to introduce proposals to give school districts more control and expand charter schools and the Teach for America program in the state.
Capitol watchers expect tax cuts and tax reform to be a major point of debate in the newly configured Legislature. Senate Democrats have always been interested in major tax reform — they created a separate tax reform committee — and they didn’t get everything they wanted in during the 2013-2014 biennium. DFL Sen. Ann Rest, head of the tax reform committee, has previously supported a major overhaul of the state’s sales tax. Republicans have kept possible tax cuts on the table, and business groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce are already pushing income tax cuts.