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New faces, old questions dominate start of 2019 Minnesota Legislature: What can get done?

Passing a gas tax increase and a MinnesotaCare buy-in option are top priorities for Gov.-elect Tim Walz and House DFLers. But opposition among Senate Republicans is bound to create a conflict from day one. 

Assistant Desk Secretary Sean Kittridge adding the name of newly-elected DFL state Rep. Heather Edelson to one of the voting boards in the House Chamber.

Any discussion of the 2019 session of the Minnesota Legislature starts with who won’t be there anymore.

Gov. Mark Dayton won’t be governor anymore, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt won’t be House speaker anymore. That alone removes a relationship that dominated the past two sessions of the Legislature — and got a lot of blame for breakdowns during end-of-session negotiations.

Also missing are a ton of GOP House members who were swept out of office in the suburban wave that gave majority control to the DFL and turned Daudt into a minority leader rather than speaker.

In addition to a new DFL governor, Tim Walz, there will be a new DFL House leader, Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman. Those changes will help determine whether much gets done in 2019. The one constant, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, was often seen as the one trying to get between Daudt and Dayton. After what he gently describes as “tension” in the leadership relationship last session, he has already begun reaching out to Walz and Hortman.

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“It’s two new people,” Gazelka said. “We always have a reputation of reaching out to, to build a bridge to find the places that we agree on. If Gov.-elect Walz, if his statements publicly are true as far as working together, we’re going to be able to get a lot done this year as well.”

State Rep. Ryan Winkler
State Rep. Ryan Winkler
Rep.-elect Ryan Winkler, a former lawmaker who was re-elected in 2018, agrees that the relationships will be better. The House’s No. 2 DFL leader said cooperation could show up in the first weeks as the House and Senate quickly pass items of mutual agreement, matters that got killed when Dayton vetoed a nearly 1,000-page omnibus bill at the end of the 2018 session.

“Anytime you can change the people involved and bring a fresh perspective, it’s better,” Winkler said. “No matter what, it would be an improvement over the bare-metal-on-metal that was the Daudt-Dayton relationship. But on top of that, Melissa and Tim and Paul all are kind of straight shooters, open people. So I think we’ll have less game playing than we’ve seen in the past.”

Private meetings over coffee among all the leaders have “put relationship capital in the bank” to be drawn down during the inevitable tough negotiations ahead, Winkler said.

A built-in conflict

But getting along doesn’t necessarily equate to passing and signing legislation. Walz and the House DFL have very different agendas than Gazelka and his Senate GOP majority. Gazelka has already said the caucus will not be agreeing to increase the gas tax as Walz prefers. It also won’t go along with expanding MinnesotaCare to let people who currently earn too much to qualify for the state-sponsored health insurance plan buy policies.

A gas tax increase and MinnesotaCare buy-in are two top priorities for Walz and House DFLers. Having them be unwelcome among Senate Republicans creates conflict from the first day. And Gazelka said that while his caucus is open to crafting a statewide paid family and medical leave plan, he said it can’t hurt the private sector and perhaps should be voluntary for business.

The Senate’s first official response to the new administration could come when Walz’s picks for commissioners face confirmation. Gazelka has expressed concerns about at least one, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner-designate Sarah Strommen, because a group she once worked for is suing to block approvals for the Twin Metals copper-nickel mine near Ely. (Currently a deputy commissioner, Strommen says she has no opinion about the mine).

Sarah Strommen
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Gov.-elect Tim Walz picked Sarah Strommen, an assistant commissioner at DNR, to take over the agency.
Walz was unusually combative when asked about chances that the Senate wouldn’t confirm his picks. “I understand co-equal branches and I understand the Senate must confirm these folks, but I also understand that 1.3 million Minnesotans voted for this administration and we should have the right, the ability to surround ourselves with the people we think are going to do the job,” Walz said.

Of the picks, more than 50 percent are women, nearly 20 percent are people of color or indigenous and 50 percent grew up in Greater Minnesota with 20 percent still living outside the Metro.

A ‘moral’ budget

Walz has spent the weeks since he and running mate Peggy Flanagan were elected conducting a statewide listening tour and overseeing a Flanagan-led process to review job applicants and appoint his cabinet. After completing 23 of 24 appointments Friday (the commissioner for IT Services has not been selected yet), Walz said he will turn his attention to his first state budget proposal due Feb. 19 and his legislative agenda. The budget was made easier by a November forecast showing a $1.54 billion projected surplus. But easier doesn’t mean easy, and demands still exceed that surplus, which has not yet taken into account inflationary pressures on the current budget.

He said he has been working with the House and Senate on proposed bills and described his budget as “a fiscal document and a moral document.”

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“We’ve made it very clear the areas we’re focusing on are foundational to Minnesota’s future — the education of our citizens, the well-being of our citizens through health care and the strength of our communities through every corner of the state through community prosperity.

“You’ll start to see that happen as the Legislature starts to happen,” he said. “You’ll start to see that right in the early days of the session.” But Walz, a six-term Member of Congress from Mankato, did raise concerns about the impacts of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

Walz and the other statewide elected officials will be sworn in during a ceremony Monday at the Fitzgerald Theater. The legislative session convenes at noon on Tuesday, with Daudt presiding until Hortman can be formally elected speaker. All House members will be sworn in then. The session is set adjourn May 19.

What will get done?

What would a successful 2019 session look like? Gazelka said it will start with the work of a newly christened Family Care and Aging Committee, which will take on reforms to how the state regulates elder care. It will also look at increasing availability and controlling costs of child care as well as look at reports of fraud and abuse by some providers claiming state reimbursement.

Senate Republican also want to look at cost increases in health care — both for services and for insurance. But Gazelka also said the GOP will reiterate its support for maintaining coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, an issue that Democrats exploited to great effect last election.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
The Nisswa insurance broker said the caucus’ opposition to expanding MinnesotaCare comes from concerns by hospitals that having more patients benefiting from the lower reimbursement rates under MinnesotaCare would put too much financial pressure on the health care providers.

The Senate would also like to direct more money to roads and bridges, though not via an increase in the gas tax. Instead, it would look at other sources, such as a proposal to devote half of the sales tax on auto parts to transportation and to use the sale of state bonds for roads and bridges.

Gazelka also said a balanced budget is a necessity, one he hopes will pass on time and with more transparency than recent sessions. “We’re having conversations with the governor and with the House about how do we make this process more transparent and more timely so that we all have more time to discuss the issues at the end, not just the three of us,” Gazelka said. “The process was really meant for the committees to have more input and we’re going to make an effort to do that. And if we get that done, we should get it done on time and hopefully get a product that Minnesota can be proud of.”

Winkler used an Olympics analogy for a prediction of what the DFL would like to get done. A bronze medal, he said, would come from stopping permanent GOP tax cuts that would destabilize future budgets; increases in schools funding; and address the sunsetting of the $500 million a year health care “provider tax” that takes in much of the funding for MinnesotaCare and the recent expansion of Medicaid.

Silver would be those things plus a new revenue source for transportation, such as a gas tax hike, plus paid family and medical leave. And Gold would be awarded if they also succeeded in passing legislation on gun safety, driver’s licenses for immigrants and the decriminalization of marijuana.

“We have a big list of things we’d love to do,” Winkler said. “And we have Tim Walz as governor with a strong mandate, stronger really than we’ve had in the past. There’s every reason to expect that will result in a lot of progress.”

A permanent campaign

Is 2020 weighing on their minds? Of course it is. The DFL swept all of the battleground legislative races, but because the state Senate was not on the ballot in 2018 (save a special election for a single seat), the GOP retains a single-seat majority (which will actually be two seats until a special election is held to replace Walz’s pick for Department of Human Services, state Sen. Tony Lourey). That gives the state the odd distinction of being the only state with the House and Senate in different partisan control, the first time only one state had divided government since 1914.

But DFLers think the political dynamics of the 2018 election could carry over to 2020, especially the apparent enmity that suburban and suburban women voters have toward Donald Trump. “I don’t think the Republicans have any other brand except Donald Trump at this point,” said Winkler.

There are two GOP-held Senate districts, for example — 44 and 56 — that elected two DFL House members in the last election. “They have to be wondering how they will survive that election,” Winkler said.

Gazelka said he will try to concentrate on what his caucus thinks is best for the state. If it does that, “2020 will take care of itself,” he said.

He does acknowledge that while Trump helped GOP candidates in 2016 he “probably hurt this last election cycle.”

“He’s apparently going to be the one running for president two years from now and we don’t know exactly how that’s gonna play out,” he said. “That’s why I just say we’re just going to focus on what we think is good for Minnesota and the rest will take care of itself.”