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Why 2018 is going to be an absolutely nutty year in Minnesota politics

The upcoming year should be filled with plenty milestones, including a midterm election that is expected to draw millions of dollars and attention from around the nation.

For the first time in state history, all 201 lawmakers will convene session without a budget for their own operations.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

The year 2017 is one that Minnesotans, at least those interested in politics, won’t soon forget.

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Republicans took control of the Legislature, and after a messy legislative session — and a special session — the governor vetoed funding for the House and Senate. That led to a historic Supreme Court case over the governor’s constitutional powers. On top of that, a United States senator resigned over sexual harassment allegations, as did two state legislators. The governor then appointed his lieutenant governor to fill the vacancy in the U.S. Senate, kicking off a chain of succession that could ultimately end up being decided in court. And those were just the highlights. 

It’s 2018 now, but nobody should expect things to slow down. The upcoming year should be filled with plenty of its own milestones, including a midterm election that is expected to draw millions of dollars and attention from around the nation. In fact, here are five reasons 2018 could be even more bonkers than last year:

Because the Legislature has no budget

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Gov. Mark Dayton

For the first time in state history, all 201 lawmakers will convene session without a budget for their own operations. Gov. Mark Dayton line-item vetoed two years of funding for the House and Senate in May as a negotiating ploy to get Republicans back to the table over a handful of provisions in budget bills. That didn’t work, and the Legislature took Dayton to court. But the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Dayton’s veto, and instead of going back into negotiations with Dayton, the Legislature has managed to stay afloat by transferring funds from a nonpartisan commission. But the issue of funding will need to be addressed at the start of the session. Lawmakers plan to quickly pass a budget to fund the House and Senate, and Dayton has said he’ll sign it. But the wounds of that fight are likely to last awhile, and some lawmakers are mulling possible constitutional amendments to limit the governor’s power to veto funding for separate branches of government.

Because the lieutenant governor mess isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon

As of Wednesday, former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith is U.S. Sen. Smith, after Dayton appointed her to take the place left by Al Franken’s resignation. That leaves a vacancy in her office that, at least according to the Constitution, “shall” be filled by the president of the Minnesota Senate. That person is eight-term Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach, who, also as of Wednesday, is referring to herself as “acting lieutenant governor.”

State Sen. Michelle Fischbach
Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach

The succession is significant on several points. Fischbach will be the first lieutenant governor to serve with a governor of an opposing party in decades, and she’s arguing she doesn’t have to leave her job in the Senate to fill the one in the Dayton administration. According to Republicans, that’s because a 1898 Supreme Court ruling allows the Senate president to serve in that role and lieutenant governor at the same time. 

For their part, Democrats say an amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s took away the dual role of the lieutenant governor to also preside over the Senate, making Republicans’ argument moot.

For now, Fischbach plans to do both jobs, though she won’t take the $83,000 salary that the lieutenant governor gets on top of her $45,000 legislative salary. The whole mess might have to be resolved in the courts, which is becoming a familiar stage for political battles. And what happens if a judge doesn’t rule in Republicans’ favor? Fischbach has said she could resign from the lieutenant governor job and run for her Senate seat. Yes, really.

Because there’s the possibility of a tie in the Minnesota Senate

Depending on how things go down with a court case over the lieutenant governor situation, there’s the possibility there could be a tie in the Minnesota Senate at some point this year, which would be the first time in decades that’s happened at the Legislature.

Rep. Dan Schoen
Former state Rep. Dan Schoen

Here’s how it could happen: The Senate is currently controlled by Republicans on a 34-32 vote, due to DFL Sen. Dan Schoen’s resignation in December in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. If Democrats hang on to that seat in a Feb. 12 special election, the GOP’s majority would shrink back to single vote. If a court case over Fischbach’s dual role in state government is brought forward, as expected, it could be expedited and resolved sometime before the Legislature adjourns in May. But if the courts don’t rule in Fischbach’s favor, she would potentially have to temporarily vacate her seat in order to run in a special election to return to the Senate. 

That’s a lot of “ifs,” but Democrats are still preparing for the possibility. They are already talking to candidates in Fischbach’s conservative-leaning central Minnesota Senate district and raising money for a possible special election. Even if they don’t win, the possibility of a temporary tie in the chamber until after a special election could make passing bills difficult. There hasn’t been a tie in the Legislature since 1978, when the Minnesota House was tied 67-67, leading to a complicated divided power contract that gave Republicans the Speaker of the House spot but gave top committee gavels to Democrats.

Because the sexual harassment scandal at the Capitol isn’t over

In 2017, Franken, Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish all resigned after allegations surfaced that they sexually harassed multiple women, and the state is still dealing with the fallout. Cornish and Schoen will be replaced in a special election ahead of the legislative session, and Franken’s resignation has put his former seat on the ballot this fall, two years ahead of schedule.

State Rep. Erin Maye Quade
State Rep. Erin Maye Quade

Meanwhile, the state Legislature and government agencies are reviewing their sexual harassment policies to see if they actually do what they purport to do: namely, protect staffers, legislators and state workers from feeling unsafe in their jobs. Dayton has convened a group of top state agency officials who will examine state policies, and House and Senate leaders are requiring sexual harassment training to all legislators. 

But that’s hardly the end of it. Dayton will likely put out recommendations to change state government policies sometime in January, and the House is in the middle of an internal investigation into allegations against Cornish, including claims that he propositioned lobbyist Sarah Walker for sex more than three dozen times.

Two women who accused Schoen of harassment, DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade and former DFL candidate Lindsey Port, are putting pressure on state leaders to establish a task force to look into sexual harassment policies and possible changes, while Republican Rep. Marion O’Neill and DFL Rep. John Lesch have proposed a slew of changes to House rules that expedite internal investigations. There’s also the possibility that more allegations could surface in the midst of the session. 

Because the midterm election starts, like, tomorrow 

Outside of legislative dynamics, the biggest Minnesota political story of 2018 will be the midterm elections. Because of Franken’s resignation, both of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot — the first time in 40 years the seats have been up during the same year. There’s also an open race for Minnesota governor that’s already attracted more than a dozen candidates. All other state constitutional offices are on the ballot too, including an open race for state auditor and the potential for an open race for attorney general. If that’s not enough, competitive congressional races are expected in as many as five of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts, as well as the race for control of the Minnesota House.

That all of these races are happening in a single election will make Minnesota a fat target for national groups, meaning Minnesota voters are likely to be bombarded with political advertisements. And the campaign starts earlier than most realize: Democratic and Republican precinct caucuses — the first step for candidates involved in intraparty battles — will be held Feb. 6.