The state's freshmen lawmakers will be confronted with a $6.2 billion budget deficit when they take office in January. Republican Rep.-elect Kurt Daudt, of Isanti, will be among those tackling the issue.
MPR News has been checking in with the District 17A lawmaker for a first-hand perspective of what's happening at the State Capitol. He first spoke to MPR in November.
Daudt continued the conversation Friday with MPR's Tom Crann.
Tom Crann: Since the last time we talked, you were not aware of any committee assignments, and since then, you have been elected to a leadership position, and also you know your committee work. So let's talk about the leadership position first. It's assistant majority leader?
Rep.-elect Kurt Daudt: That's correct. There are a few assistant majority leaders, some of those who are elected by the caucus at large, one who is appointed by the speaker, and then mine is a little different situation that's unique this year. They've done this, I know, at least one other time in the past, but we have a very large freshman class this year. So the caucus decided to allow the freshman to elect one representative from that class to sit on the executive board. So my title coming in will be assistant majority leader.
Crann: Will you be involved in negotiations when it gets down to that?
Daudt: That's a good question. I have no idea. A lot of this is so new. My speculation would be probably not, but yet to be determined.
Crann: Since we talked last time, there's a new budget number, $6.2 billion deficit, it looks like. Does that change anything here since the last time we talked, as you look ahead at the session?
Daudt: I don't know that it does. I think there was some speculation. We knew that it was going to be high. I think it was $5.8 [billion] or something the last time we talked. At this point, we're still in the same situation. It's going to be very difficult decisions for everybody to make. I think it's a demonstration that the economy is still in tough shape, and we've got some work to do here.
Crann: And what does that work look like for your caucus, for Republicans who ran pretty much opposed to new taxes? Did you see any low-hanging fruit here? Do you see any places were right away you can target?
Daudt: I think my own personal speculation would be that the governor's unallotments will probably be made permanent. That'll be probably one of the first things that the caucus will look at. I don't know that that's the case, but it would be my speculation. I think those have a value of about $3 billion. So if we can make those permanent, that'll take care of some of the deficit, but we've got a lot of other work to do.
Crann: If you say that the governor's unallotments from last session [will be made permanent], it looks likely that's a starting point. They may continue to deal with the budget deficit. That didn't solve the whole problem. There were shifts. There were K-12 shifts. So where did you see starting to work on the rest of it?
Daudt: You know, I think that you're right. The $3 billion from the unallotments isn't going to take care of this. If we can make those permanent, that covers about half or almost half of the budget deficit.
I think we'll probably see the education shift that they did in the last session. This isn't the first time we've done it. It has happened in the past, and I don't think there is a time in the past when it was ever paid back in full the next cycle. So that budget deficit that they're talking about includes a full payback of that shift. So I think it's probably unlikely we'll see that. That'll probably get paid back over time.
And the reason for doing that kind of a shift is you hope that better times are ahead and we'll see some additional revenue that will help you to pay that back in the future. So it's kind of pushing the ball forward to a future time. So I think we're probably unlikely to see that shift paid back completely in this next biennium.
Crann: So another shift, kicking the can down the road, as they say.
Daudt: Well, you know it's really tough to find a way to solve this kind of a budget deficit and pay that entire shift back. So, personally I'd love to see that, but I'm not naive to the fact that it's going to be difficult to find that kind of money by cutting in other areas.
Crann: Do you see any areas exempt from cuts?
Daudt: Well, I think there are some priority areas that we probably will try to save, care of our elderly, those types of things, probably developmentally or mentally disabled folks, special education programs, those kinds of things. And I think to a certain extent there is a need for a safety net, but ... (the Department of Health and) Human Services is ... where we see the largest increases in the state budget. So I think we're going to have to see some of that scaled back. So I would look to that area for some reductions.
DYNAMICS OF FRESHMAN CLASS
Crann: Big incoming freshman class and most of you are Republicans. I'm wondering what the mood is like because the incoming group has been characterized as a pretty conservative group, politically.
Daudt: You know, I think that's fair. They are a conservative group, really a talented group. I think in this political environment a lot of people are speculating that this is a Tea Party crowd that got elected. I don't think that's the case. I think you've got a great group of people that come from very diverse backgrounds, different skill levels and different experience sets, and I'm actually really looking forward to working with them. I think it's a great group of people, and I think they bring a really great perspective to the Legislature.
Crann: It's a big group. We're also following this session a veteran DFLer, Sen. Sandy Pappas, to get the view from not only the different chamber, but the different side of the aisle. And when I talked to her, she said she was concerned about the depth of experience in the incoming group in the Senate and in the House ... And so how do you respond to that? You have one-third of the House coming in who are not necessarily experienced legislators.
Daudt: True. I think our number, technically I think it's 46 percent of our caucus is freshman ... which is a large group, but we've got really talented people that bring real life experience.
I mean our Legislature is a citizen, part-time Legislature. And I think that's for a reason. So the fact that we don't have as many maybe career legislators is good. We've got economists. We've got teachers. We've got attorneys. We've got really a wide ranging scope of people who are coming in in this freshman class, so [it's] pretty exciting, I think.
Crann: Not a lot of talk this election cycle about social issues that have been championed by Republicans, but then we've heard a group of GOP lawmakers saying, 'No, it is time. It is time to work on things such as a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage.' How do you see those social issues, specifically same-sex marriage, playing out in this session?
Daudt: Well, I think that it's certainly something that many of the members, particularly in our caucus, have talked about and many of them campaigned on. It wouldn't completely surprise me to see something like that come up. I don't think we're going to see it be a huge priority and top of our list.
We may get to it eventually, but I think we're ... going to talk about jobs and the economy. That's really what people I think care about right now, and we've got this big budget deficit to deal with, so some of this ancillary stuff ... for those that don't follow the inside baseball of the Legislature, we've got an opportunity right now that we haven't had for 40 years to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. Those don't need to go across the governor's desk first. They can pass the House and the Senate. We can put them to the ballot and let the voters decide.
But even though I'm on that side of the issue (in favor of a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage), I don't know that I would even say it needs to be our center, cornerstone issue right now, but I think it probably will come up. I don't know if it'll be this year or if it'll happen next year in the second half of the biennium, but it wouldn't surprise me.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)