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What’s at stake in this year’s legislative races

Tom Olmscheid
All 201 House and Senate seats are on the ballot this November, leaving the door open for Democrats to regain control of the House, maintain the Senate and sweep back into one-party control during Dayton’s last two years in the governor’s office.

Over the last two years, Gov. Mark Dayton has developed a new mantra: Minnesotans wanted divided government, and this is what it looks like.

He’s referring, of course, to the gridlock in St. Paul since 2015, the year after voters sent a Republican majority to the state House of Representatives. With Democrats in control of the Senate and Dayton, a Democrat, sitting in the governor’s office, the political divide has led to frequent clashes and a short list of accomplishments since then.

This fall, Dayton isn’t on the ballot, but he wants voters to return things to the way they were before 2015, when Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office. All 201 House and Senate seats are on the ballot this November, leaving the door open for Democrats to regain control of the House, maintain the Senate and sweep back into one-party control during Dayton’s last two years in the governor’s office. Republicans are hoping to maintain control in the House and possibly even win a majority in the Senate, but either way, they’ll face opposition from Dayton.

For those closely watching the race for the Minnesota Legislature in 2016, that’s exactly what’s at stake: the difference between more political division in St. Paul or a one-party-controlled government that passes more bills — though bills some voters don’t like.

Democrats eye one-party control

When DFLers controlled government in 2013 and 2014, they made major changes to state policy. Under Democrats, Minnesota was the 12th state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013, shortly after voters narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In 2014, DFL lawmakers also raised Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 for the first time in nearly a decade.

If Democrats regain control of government this fall, they’ve already teed up a handful of issues for debate, including mandatory paid family leave across state government and Minnesota’s private sector. They’re promising to pick up the debate about closing Minnesota’s racial disparity gap, and environmental issues would also play a bigger role under Democrats, including Dayton’s agenda to clean up and protect all of the state’s waterways.

Dayton plans to travel to all 87 counties in Minnesota in 86 days this summer and fall to deliver that message, but it’s one that can cut both ways, especially in Greater Minnesota, where some voters are still upset over proposals that passed last time Democrats had control.

“It’s always in the eye of the beholder,” Darin Broton, a longtime DFL operative, said. “Democrats like to say we can get stuff done if you give us the keys to run everything, but there’s still a great amount of pause with folks. People say, ‘We don’t trust you that you are going to focus on A, B and C, because last time you were elected you did X, Y and Z.’ ”

Republicans call for ‘balance’

Much as they did during the 2014 campaign, Republicans are pitching the need for balance in government. They point to tax increases passed under Democrats in 2013 and 2014, as well as funding for an all-new office building for senators, which became an anti-DFL mascot for House Republicans on the 2014 campaign trail.

“You’ve got to have some balance in your life and you’ve got to have some balance in your governing, too,” said former House Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum, who hopes voters send a Republican majority back to the House in the fall. “When Democrats controlled state government, they wiped the table on social issues and raised taxes and raised spending.”

Steve Sviggum
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Steve Sviggum

Sviggum acknowledges that divided government has led to plenty of gridlock in St. Paul, and that is likely to continue if Republicans maintain power in the House, but the end result is fewer bills with broader support publicly. That includes a two-year, $42 billion budget passed in 2015 that increased spending in a few targeted areas like nursing homes and education.

“The more liberal agenda from the governor is going to be there, so it’s important to have Republicans to balance that out,” he said. “Does that mean there’s more confrontation? Yes. Does that mean its harder to come to decisions? Yes. But that means the result will be more mainstream and more balanced.”

Republicans haven’t exactly been quiet about their priorities over the last two years, and those are unlikely to change in 2017. With a projected budget surplus and plenty of money left on the bottom line last session, Republicans will continue to push for tax cuts, arguing the state is taking in more than it should from Minnesotans.

In the weeks since session ended, Republicans also brought a new issue front and center: Pre-emption for local governments. The business community wants legislators to pass a law that prevents cities from passing their own wage and labor rules, after cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul have moved toward offering workers paid leave. Minneapolis is also considering a referendum to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the pre-emption proposal is a priority for Republicans in a potential special session of the Legislature or in regular session next year. 

Will any Legislature be productive?

But for some longtime Capitol watchers, the two possible outcomes of the 2016 election aren’t really all that different. Government has become more partisan both federally and locally, no matter who is in charge, and both parties have been emphasizing what they’ll prevent.

Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, was disappointed that lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term transportation funding package this year, even though both parties said it was a priority. A bonding proposal that included one-time transportation funding blew up in the final minutes of session over whether funding options for light rail should be included.

Matt Kramer
Matt Kramer

It would be easy to blame that outcome on divided government, Kramer said, but when Democrats controlled government, they didn’t pass funding for transportation and light rail projects either.

“Both parties are becoming really reliant campaigning on what they prevent instead of what they get done,” he added. “It’s really challenging to understand that I’m voting for someone who will accomplish something, instead of, I’m voting to elect someone who will prevent the other side from doing something.”

Broton said he has a similar frustration: So far, the 2016 campaign has been quiet, and neither side is doing much to show voters how Minnesota could be different if they are elected in the fall.

“The challenge right now is neither side has figured out how to frame up what they are for,” he said. “Right now it’s more, ‘Here is what you are going to get if you elect the other side.’ ” 

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/13/2016 - 08:43 am.


    So if the GOP wins back the Governor’s Mansion in 2018, I can’t wait for Steve Swiggum to advocate for a DFL legislature to provide balance!

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/13/2016 - 09:55 am.

    Did We Really Choose?

    Our state’s system of elections mirrors that of the federal system. That is, we don’t choose the whole government at once. The House is elected every two years, some times when the Senate and Governor are not on the ballot. Sometimes the guv is on the ballot with the House, but the Senate is in the middle if a 4 year term. After the census, the Senate is redistricted so the typical 4 year term is cut short and they serve only two years.

    So it is naive to say the we “chose” divided government, unless all three (House, Senate, Guv) were elected on the same day.

    When more offices, from the President on down to dog catcher are on the ballot, more voters show up. It is important to note, as Eric Black has pointed out (on the federal level, but it holds true here too) that we are the only democracy that does this. Of all the constitutions that have been written since ours, no one has copied this dis-jointed system.

    As for Matt Kramer and the MN Chamber, they’ll get their highway funding when they get their side (the GOP) in order. But that may not happen for a while, since the solution requires more tax dollars, and they just can;t bring themselves to be adults about that.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/13/2016 - 10:29 am.

    Matt Kramer can’t have it both ways: Either he promotes both parties being “for” things they want to do, or he can keep up being fiercely “against” letting our cities pass local ordinances to help hourly wage workers earn decent wages and benefits.

    Kramer (and another Kramer in Minneapolis) has been leading the charge “against” the move in St. Paul and Minneapolis to require that businesses provide paid sick leave to hourly workers, and a decent minimum wage. He is “against” any city trying to improve the lives of hourly low-paid workers by passing local laws, in the absence of any decent state provisions.

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 07/13/2016 - 10:40 am.

    Transportation and light rail

    Balanced government make sense if both parties are willing to let the other party have their priorities.

    What do Republicans not understand about traffic congestion in the SW Suburbs? There is not the will of money to pay for massive expansion in the highway system to relieve this congestion, which is awful during morning and afternoon rush hour.. Light rail is the only way to do it.

    Most of the money is provided by federal tax dollars, which if not spent in Minnesota will be spend in other places. We already contribute more our fair share of spending for for federal programs for poverty states, so here is a chance to get some of it back, providing jobs and improving quality of life,

    Projects like light rail will help the Twin Cities remain a first tier metro area, which makes the state as a whole more attractive. Greater Minnesota also has transportation needs. DFL proposals addressed both and adequately funded them.

    In contrast, Republicans don’t like mass transit. Maybe it is the “mass” part – as many appear to think they are too important to use it – ignoring the reality that many people want it. Had they been accommodating on this one point, they would have their priorities.

    However, in this political year, they were not going to be cooperative. Their attitude is “my way and the highway.” Perhaps they just want to be oppositional, like their truculent Presidential candidate. Sorry, boys. Minnesotans like people who make an extra effort to get play nice and share. Are you up to it?

  5. Submitted by Bill Willy on 07/13/2016 - 12:21 pm.

    Working hard outstate Minnesotans

    “The business community wants legislators to pass a law that prevents cities from passing their own wage and labor rules . . . House Speaker Kurt Daudt said the pre-emption proposal is a priority for Republicans”

    What do you think about that, St. Cloud? How ’bout you, Moorhead? And Duluth, Rochester, Mankato, Wilmar, International Falls, Thief River, Bemidji: You okay with “the business community” and Republicans taking away your local governing rights and assigning them to the state? Is that your idea of your outstate interests being well represented in St. Paul?

    If you think that’s a good idea and you’d like to get an advanced look at the type of bill “the business community,” Kurt Daudt and the people running to be your Republican representatives see as a priority, click this link:

    It leads to a piece of “model legislation” on the web site of the “American Legislative Exchange Council” (ALEC). It’s called the “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” and it was put together by representatives of some of America’s (and the world’s) biggest corporations.

    As one group that keeps an eye on ALEC puts it:

    “Through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that govern your rights and boost their revenue.”

    If you go to that web site and take a look the list of “ALEC Politicians” in Minnesota ( you’ll see quite a few Republican legislators who are members. For example, you’ll see Pat Garofalo listed as the “ALEC State Chair” in the House and Mary Kiffmeyer listed as “ALEC State Chair” in the Senate.

    So when Kurt Daubt says “the pre-emption proposal is a priority for Republicans,” some version ALEC’s “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” is what he’s talking about. And when he and other Republicans say they’re representing the interests of “hard working outstate Minnesota families,” more often than not, that’s just Republican-speak for “business interests and ALEC.”

    If that kind of thing sounds good to you because you think your community really SHOULD hand over its governing rights to the state, by all means, vote Republican.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/13/2016 - 01:00 pm.

      Local control, GOP-style

      Good for school boards (except when they want to hold elections in off-years or set their own levies), not so much for city councils.

      Heck, if the big city wage and labor proposals are as awful as Daudt claims they are, Republicans should be dying for Minneapolis and St. Paul to pass them. Under their thinking, jobs should then flee the urban core to lower cost suburban and rural areas. (But they really know that the impact on employment will be minimal and — gasp! — such policies will prove to very popular.)

  6. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/13/2016 - 02:13 pm.

    An interesting and relevant

    comment was made by our old friend, Tom Friedman in an article today:

    link: The (G.O.P.) Party’s Over

    “A one-party democracy — that is, a two-party system where only one party is interested in governing and the other is in constant blocking mode, which has characterized America in recent years — is much worse. It can’t do anything big, hard or important.”

    This is the situation we find ourselves in at the state legislature in the last few years. If this is the balance that Mr. Swiggum is seeking it has clearly been a failure.

    Perhaps a return to the House and Senate being controlled by a single party is not such a bad thing, if it allows hard, big, or important things to be done?

    • Submitted by richard owens on 07/13/2016 - 03:07 pm.

      Grover Norquist Pledges

      …are incompatible with serving Minnesota constituents. Let the GOPers recant their Norquist allegiance.

      ALSO, ALEC is not a friend of MN, but a national organization doing the will of the Kochs and the most reactionary elements of the Republican Party. Their gun initiatives are responsible for many deaths and fear spread across the country. Their orientation is of the John Birch Society, not MN.

      Let the GOPers publicly quit serving two masters.

      We see from their majorities, Republicans don’t want to govern anyway. They would rather scheme about disruption than offer public solutions for policy and problems. Obstruction and wedge issue charades substitute for any GOP led dialogue or compromise.

      They lecture us about money but don’t even pay their own bills. Several of their members advise us about fiscal matters and can’t even pay their mortgage.

      We know they hate government and don’t believe in it very much. They pretend we don’t need governance.

      What real choice does a voter have who still believes in our government?

  7. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 07/13/2016 - 03:50 pm.

    Gridlock is good

    One party domination can get a lot of things done, but only 50% of the population is happy with it. Gridlock is fair as everybody gets the same, which is nothing. If an issue arises that is really, really important (like quickly finding an alternative funding source for the Vikings stadium), then partisians can intensely focus and resolve it with mind-bending speed.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/13/2016 - 05:14 pm.

      Less Than 50% In Walkerstan

      In Wisconsin, one party control doesn’t even please 50% of the population. While a majority of voters chose Democratic representation in 2014 elections, owing to a fantastic scheme of gerrymandering the GOP has a lock on the legislature.

      Wonder if ole’ Steve think the GOP oughtta pull it’s punches in WI so they can have gridlock too.

  8. Submitted by Ellen Hoerle on 07/13/2016 - 04:39 pm.

    Author bias?

    I sense some author bias in this piece. Using Steve Sviggum as a source of “news” or “objective opinion” is the first sign. Of course SS prefers “balance” over total DFL control. But what he really wants is total GOP control so he can get what he really wants–more tax cuts, less progress. Frankly, I don’t miss the days of Pawlenty or Sviggum tenure at all because every budget was a deficit and required cuts and then the I-35w bridge collapsed and Pawlenty briefly supported an increase in the gas tax for what, a few hours? and then quickly reversed course. That demonstrated to me that Republicans aren’t interested in fixing things, spending money to fix things, spending money to do anything. Cuts, cuts, cuts. It’s really their only policy agenda. The goal seems to be to prove that nothing of value can be achieved by government spending or things Democrats want are unnecessary or worse indulgent and careless. Which brings me to the second sign of bias on the part of the author.

    Why was funding and implementation of all-day Kindergarten left off the list of accomplishments of DFL legislature and governor? Instead the author makes sure to remind us that Republicans are bitter about the approval of a new Senate building and tax increases, a bitterness they exploited to the max in Greater MN to help them gain control of the House. The sad part is that it worked with a majority of voters in Greater MN. Never, ever admit that the tax increases helped fund all-day Kindergarten and provided a surplus, which is a much better place to be than deficits, deficits, deficits as far as the eye can see.

    The Republicans’ desire to give the surplus back to the taxpayers exposes a huge lack of imagination and willingness to spend money to fix problems in this state, as if there weren’t any problems to fix. Joel Stegner above mentions traffic congestion in the SW suburbs, a problem that is bad now and with no recognition or acknowledgement by our Republican Representatives and Senator Loon and Hann of Eden Prairie that traffic congestion is a problem both in the morning and afternoon. Yet both refuse to support the SWLRT. Flat out refuse. They think they are protecting our pocket books from reckless spending on a form of transportation they will personally never use–out of principle, don’t you know–but I’m starting to believe that they are hearing from some of their constituents that EP needs to be protected from ‘those people’ taking the LRT to EP and that sentiment is added to their principle to never spend money on something they won’t personally benefit from so. . .

    That’s how you maintain divided, oops, I mean balanced government. Pit ‘we can take care of ourselves because we have enough’ against those who could use more help and more opportunities to improve their quality of life. That’s the Republican mantra in a nutshell.

  9. Submitted by Sally Sorensen on 07/14/2016 - 10:08 am.

    Giving Republicans credit for that education bump: hilarious

    It’s nice that this article gives the House Republicans credit for a bump in education funding.

    Balanced writing but not fair or accurate-since Dayton had to veto the original education bill in order to secure that extra funding for our schools.

    But don’t let that central fact get in your way.

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