Minnesota lawmakers push for early wins, signal splits are on the horizon
ST. PAUL -- A class of new lawmakers took their oaths of office Tuesday, Jan. 8, establishing a new order in the statehouse and setting the stage for conflict over top issues.
It was the first day of the legislative session and leaders of the country's only split Legislature said they were eager to rack up early bipartisan wins but signaled that big disagreements were on the horizon.
As they explained their first proposals, Republicans said that DFL campaign promises to set up a gas tax to fund highway repairs, allow people to buy into the MinnesotaCare program and adopt universal pre-K would meet opposition in the Senate, where the GOP holds a two-seat majority.
Democrats, meanwhile, said they would blaze ahead with proposals to reform gun laws, improve economic prosperity in Minnesota, improve educational outcomes and make health care affordable.
A day that is traditionally ceremonial at the Capitol also came with tension as protesters rallying both for and against gun control measures packed the areas around the House and Senate chambers and cheered or chanted at lawmakers as they entered. And in the House, Republicans, now in the minority, for two hours railed against Democrats' move to change temporary rules, arguing the changes would make the legislative process less transparent.
In the next five months, lawmakers along with Gov. Tim Walz will have to write a nearly $50 billion budget before the session ends in May and they've promised to tackle other pressing issues like bringing down the cost of health care, improving access to daycare and making schools safer.
Just how effectively the split statehouse could work remained in question Tuesday.
Health care, school safety proposals at odds
As legislative leaders laid out their top priorities for the legislative session, they split on how to improve the state's economy, keep schools safer and drive down the cost of health care.
Senate Republicans on Tuesday morning said their first five bills would increase mental health resources, remove regulations preventing some from starting up daycares, letting a medical provider tax, which they renamed a "sick tax," expire, reducing fraud in taxpayer-funded programs and simplifying the state tax code.
"We think our ideas matter and work and we’re going to prove it," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.
And Republicans said that ideas that were key components of Gov. Tim Walz and DFL-ers campaigns wouldn't work for that chamber. The proposals to let Minnesotans to buy into the state-funded MinnesotaCare insurance program, hike the tax on gasoline to fund highway repairs and offer universal early childhood education would sink in the Senate, they said.
“MinnesotaCare buy in basically is government-run healthcare," Gazelka said, "in the end, that is a solution that will bring us to disaster."
But House Democrats said they'd present a slate of initial legislation including some of those proposals on Wednesday. Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was elected House Speaker on Tuesday. And she said voters elected Walz and a Democratic majority in the House after they campaigned on those issues as well as on gun control measures.
"We feel very strongly that Minnesotans have made it loud and clear they are ready for gun violence prevention measures, commonsense reforms," Hortman said.
Protesters demonstrating for and against gun reform legislation rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday, hoisting signs and chanting across the rotunda.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Republicans would weigh the bills but would be reluctant to pass legislation that eliminated due process for gun owners.
Walz said he'd likely support so-called 'red flag' legislation that allows family or friends to request a gun owner's firearm be removed if he or she poses a risk to him or herself or others.
Seeking early wins
Democrats and Republicans both expressed optimism about the new working order and they said early deals were already in the works including allowing the Secretary of State to accept federal funds to secure elections and approving funds to increase resources for opioid addiction treatment.
“We have a fresh start," Gazelka said. "We have a governor that is now in office that feels like he’ll be more pragmatic."
“We want to have some early wins,” he continued.
Hortman on Monday said the two had agreed to make Minnesota a model in terms of productivity. She said the less controversial pieces of an omnibus bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton last year would have a green light.