Minnesota lawmakers began the 2012 legislative session Tuesday stressing a bipartisan goal to get along and help boost the state economy.
But on a day when Senate Majority leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, told his colleagues that the chamber was like a family, Republicans and Democrats were fighting over internal finances within hours.
Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee approved a plan that trims the chamber's operating budget by $2.6 million. The cuts were required under the deal that ended last year's budget standoff. Much of the savings will come from staff layoffs, including up to 14 employees from the DFL side. There were no GOP staff cuts.
Democrats on the committee, including state Sen. Keith Langseth of Glyndon, cried foul.
"I don't know, we were talking earlier in the day about this being family," Langseth said. "Well, it kind of seems to me that I've never treated my younger brothers and sisters quite the way this is being done. I don't think anyone would consider this to be fair."
Republicans and Democrats insist that job creation is their shared priority for the short session, but the staff layoffs were reminders that contentious issues could get in the way.
It has been six months since the House and Senate were last in session. Lawmakers needed a special session in July to erase a $4 billion budget deficit, bridge a deep philosophical divide and end a historic state government shutdown.
In the new session, many legislators were looking past last year's partisan meltdown.
"We will have differences," Senjem said in his opening remarks. "Families do have differences. We know that. There will be differences in the way that we feel about issues, and that's okay."
Senjem said it will take everyone coming together in the upcoming months to help improve the state's business climate.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton used the opening day to reiterate his jobs agenda. The governor said a bonding bill and a Vikings stadium bill will get thousands of unemployed construction workers off the bench.
"Let's take all the good ideas and let's put them together, because we've got 175,000 unemployed Minnesotans who want to work and can't find work," Dayton said. "It's incumbent on all of us to be doing everything we can as quickly as we can, and as responsibly as we can, to help them find that work."
One big reason for optimism at the Capitol is the state's improving economic picture. After several years of battling red ink, lawmakers last month received an economic forecast that showed a modest budget surplus of $876 million. The next forecast comes out in February. A surplus makes everyone's job easier, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville.
"I think everybody is willing to take this on as a new year, and the reason we're here is to do good for the state of Minnesota," Holberg said. "You've got to focus on that."
The House and Senate held brief, largely ceremonial floor sessions at noon. There were also a handful of afternoon sessions, including the Rules Committee meeting that yielded layoffs — an early warning for those interested in bipartisanship.
House and Senate Democrats predicted more potential disagreements ahead, especially when several Republican-backed constitutional amendment bills come up.
There are proposed amendments to limit the level of state spending, set a higher vote threshold for tax increases and require Minnesotans to show a photo identification when they vote. If approved, the questions bypass the governor and go straight to the ballot.
State Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, said the amendments could throw compromise and consensus-building out the window.
"I think that the public is as tired as I am and as frustrated as I am with partisan politics," Morrow said. "Let's focus on jobs, the economy, education, and get our work done on time."
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle will have opportunity to work on their consensus-building skills Wednesday, during a daylong event at the University of Minnesota. They're attending the annual legislative policy conference known as "One Minnesota."