DFL Gov. Mark Dayton hoped voters would deliver him a Democratic-controlled Legislature on Election Night. Instead, they gave him the opposite, in a stunning Republican wave that swept outstate districts and exposed a deepening divide between urban and rural Minnesotans.
Dayton noted that Republicans only regained control of the state Senate by a single seat — pending two recounts. “We are a closely divided electorate,” he said.
House Republicans, standing outside their St. Paul office building Wednesday afternoon, offered a different take on the election: that Minnesotans spoke loud and clear in wanting a change from Dayton and Democratic policies on things like the economy and healthcare. “We not only maintained our majority, we grew our majority,” Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said, flanked by new Republicans legislators in his now 76-member caucus.
Whatever Minnesota voters intended on election night, what they ended up with is more divided government. Dayton is serving out his final two years in the governor’s office with a 76-57 Republican-controlled House (pending a February special election) and 34-33 GOP-led Senate (pending two senate recounts). And if Wednesday morning’s dueling press conferences are any indication, it’s going to be another two years of dead-end meetings, open letters and lots of gridlock.
Peace and harmony? Not so much
One of the more immediate issues is a possible special session to deal with the rising costs of premiums under the state’s health insurance exchange. But on Wednesday, Dayton and Daudt disagreed about whether tax cuts, bonding and transportation spending should be taken up as part of a special session, too. Dayton threw cold water on a broader agenda for the session, saying he was concerned about the state and nation’s economic future under a Trump administration. “I’m not going to agree to a tax bill that’s based on last spring’s forecast,” Dayton said. “I’m seriously concerned about the economic future of this state and nation.”
But Daudt said the governor was going back on his word to fix problems with a bipartisan tax bill, which he vetoed at the end of last session over a drafting error that would’ve cost the state $100 over the next three years. “Gov. Dayton is going to be held accountable to the words and the promises and the commitments he made to Minnesotans,” he said.
Facing a Republican-controlled Legislature is not a totally unfamiliar position for the governor, of course: Republicans held both the House and the Senate during his first two years in office. In 2011, budget negotiations with Republicans ended in a historic, 20-day government shutdown. He raised the specter of another government shutdown next year, though he said he’d like to work with Republicans to find common ground.
“There are stark differences between those two groups of Minnesotans and the people who have been elected to represent them, including myself,” Dayton said. “It’s going to be unrealistic for Minnesotans to send a group of people that closely divided and have very deep differences and expect it’s all going to be peace and harmony. It’s not.”
Neither Dayton nor Daudt suggested their agendas will change much over the next two years. For the governor, that means continuing to push his universal pre-school proposal, which Republican legislators have repeatedly rebuffed. He also wants to pass major clean water initiatives in his final two years in office, but Republicans and farmers have pushed back, specifically on his proposal to create natural buffer zones to protect lakes and streams from agricultural runoff across the state.
As long as there’s a surplus, Daudt said they will continue to push for a tax-cut bill, a proposal that failed last year under Dayton’s veto pen. Daudt also suggested he wants to see the state’s health insurance exchange MNsure eliminated and the system set back to the “way things were before.”
What about the Senate?
The big unknown factor is what direction the new Senate Republican majority will take. They were mostly silent on Wednesday, after the caucus’ leader, David Hann, lost his Eden Prairie Senate seat in an upset. The Senate minority caucus is meeting Thursday morning to elect a new leader to take them into the majority.
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“Voters want Republicans to stop the government overreach that happened under DFL control, and give them back power to make decisions about their own lives,” Hann said in a brief statement. “They want us to fix the healthcare crisis. They want government to live within its means and stop spending money wastefully.”
If there is one broad area of common ground coming out of Tuesday’s election, it could be evening the economic playing field for Minnesotans. “‘Make America Great Again,’ it’s a very effective slogan,” said Dayton, reflecting on why Trump resonated with so many Minnesotan voters. “We all want American to be great again. I think America is great now, but it needs improvement for a lot of people who felt that their lives were not as good as they were a decade ago, in terms of their economic stability.”