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The 7 things to watch in the 2017 Minnesota Legislature

The 2017 Legislature will feature new challenges for lawmakers, including a looming governor’s race and ongoing tensions between the state’s executive and legislative branches.

Assistant Desk Secretary Sean Kittridge arranging the nameplates on the voting boards in the Minnesota House Chamber.

Any way you look at it, the 2016 session of the Minnesota Legislature wasn’t great.

The House and Senate convened in March having a substantial budget surplus to spend, but political gridlock meant that final negotiations over major legislation was pushed to the last minutes. Then, nearly everything unraveled in the hours and weeks that followed: 

  • A nearly $1 billion bonding bill and a package of transportation projects fell apart on the House floor in the last 15 minutes of session when confusion arose over whether light rail funding was included in the package.
  • A tax cut bill was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton a week after the session was over — when Dayton’s staff realized there was a drafting error that would cost the state $100 million over the next three years.
  • Negotiations for a special session to re-pass the bonding and tax cut packages fell apart, repeatedly, even when the time-sensitive issue of passing relief for rising health insurance premiums was added to the mix.

With the 2017 session kicking off Tuesday, at least a few things will be different this time around. For starters, the November election handed Republicans control of both the Senate and the House. Also, the election resulted in 44 new lawmakers being sent to St. Paul, which could bring some fresh perspectives to old issues. 

But there are also new challenges that 2017 brings, including a looming governor’s race and tensions between the state’s executive and legislative branches. With all that in mind, here are seven things we’ll be watching during the 2017 legislative session:

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1. Will there be more transparency?
Legislative sessions amid divided government tend to have messy endings. In case you forgot, the last time Gov. Mark Dayton was paired up with a Republican-controlled Legislature, in 2011, their differences led to a 20-day government shutdown. In both 2015 and 2016 — when a DFL governor and Senate faced off against a Republican House  sessions ended with last-minute, dead-of-night, secretive dealmaking that led to plenty of mistakes, and plenty of unfinished business. 

House Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
House Speaker Kurt Daudt

Leaders say that’s going to change this year (though they’ve said that before). After several unproductive negotiating sessions with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt in private, Dayton said he wants upcoming budget negotiations to be held in public. At a recent legislative preview event, Daudt also said he also wants deals to be debated and finalized in public. “We’re going to conduct the business of the state this year in the committees,” he said.

For his part, new Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka thinks timing is also an issue. Deals should be worked out earlier in the session, he says. That way, if deals do fall apart, there’s still time to figure out an alternative.

2. Can Dayton and Daudt work together? 
Dayton and Daudt are obviously critical to getting anything done at the Legislature, yet their relationship continues to get worse. Over the last six months, the two have clashed repeatedly on the details of a one-day special session to deal with the failed bonding and tax bills, as well as health care premium relief for people on the state’s health insurance exchange. The negotiations officially blew up in mid December, when Dayton disagreed with Daudt’s decision to go to a legislative leadership conference in the Virgin Islands during negotiations. Dayton held a press conference and, for good measure, also sent a letter addressed to Daudt’s hotel in the Virgin Islands — a move that didn’t make the speaker very happy.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by James NordGov. Mark Dayton

The episode clulminated in a supremely awkward “public” special session negotiation on a snowy Friday in late December that ended after 20 minutes with both Dayton and Daudt storming out of the room — and no deal.  “I valued a personal relationship more than he does,” said Daudt, who recently characterized his relationship with the governor as “damaged.”

“This is a relationship business. He needs relationships in the Legislature to pass his agenda.”

How well Daudt and Dayton work together will be an early indicator of how things are going to go next session.

3. WWGD: What will Gazelka do? 
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is the only new face among the big three: governor, House speaker and Senate majority leader. Elected to lead Senate Republicans after they took back the majority in November (and after former Senate Minority Leader David Hann lost his seat), Gazelka won his Nisswa-area Senate seat in 2010, after serving one term in the House. He’s known for his social and fiscal conservative views, and he once lead the effort to ban gay marriage in Minnesota.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

In his leadership role, Gazelka is an unknown quantity, but he has said he wants to set a new tone at the Capitol in 2017. “We’ve decided it’s going to be a different tone,” he said at a legislative preview event in December. “I don’t want any strongly worded letters to the governor with any strongly worded letters back from the governor.” 

A new tone would be a good place to start, as Gazelka may turn out to be the only person who can break the gridlock between Dayton and Daudt. But, hey, no pressure or anything. 

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4. Can Senate Republicans keep it together? 
Part of the reason for Gazelka’s collegial tone might be because he’ll be operating with a razor-thin majority — one vote, to be exact. Senate Republicans hold a 34-33 advantage in the upper chamber. 

That means Gazelka will want to keep all of his caucus members happy — and have a few friends across the aisle, too. To pass a bonding bill, which requires a super-majority of 41 votes, he’ll need at least seven DFL votes.

Senate Republicans may want to stock up on multivitamins and Emergenc-C to keep from getting sick, since they won’t be able to miss any votes. (We’d also suggest drinking lots of water, but not on the Senate floor, because that’s still banned.)

5. How much can Dayton get done before he goes? 
This year, Gov. Mark Dayton is grappling with something far different than other leaders in St Paul. At 69 years old, he’s heading into his final two years in office, nearing the end of a career in politics that’s also included stints as state auditor and a term in the U.S. Senate.

Yet he still has big things he wants to accomplish before he goes, including a long-term transportation funding package, universal all-day preschool and pollution protection for the state’s waterways.

Sen. Tom Bakk, now the Senate minority leader, warned other leaders not to underestimate the governor, even if he is a “lame duck”: “Governor’s tend to get what they want,” said Bakk.  

6. How will the 2018 governor’s race affect the 2017 session? 
Dayton may be winding down his tenure as governor, but a lot of other people are eyeing the office. DFLers Rep. Erin Murphy and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman have already announced they’re running for governor in 2018. But there are many more possible candidates still considering their options, including Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Bakk and Daudt.

Dayton, for one, predicts the session will be “very charged with the politics of 2018, people running for governor, and wanting to stay confrontational to build their standing with their own party.”

7. What happens to MNsure? 
The symbolic first House and Senate bills for the 2017 session will have to do with the cost of healthcare in Minnesota. That’s not exactly surprising: It was a huge issue on the campaign trail, with Republicans hammering Democrats for the hike in premiums seen in MNsure’s individual marketplace. Now, Republicans have to come up with a solution of their own, which won’t be easy.

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There’s the short-term problem, which is what to do for people who saw those premium increases. And then there’s the issue of what to do with the health insurance exchange overall. That will hinge greatly on what happens at the federal level, with a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act happening sometime in the next year.

“They will unravel this, but we all know that will not happen before we need to do something in Minnesota,” Daudt said. “It’s going to take some time for us to do that. It’s not going to happen over night.”