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DFLers regain control of Minn. Legislature

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State shutdown
The grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, in a file photo from July 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The latest update:

1:20 a.m.

Republicans have conceded they have lost control of the Minnesota House to Democrats after two  years in charge. 

11:15 p.m.

With all precincts reporting, former Republican legislator Ron Erhardt is returning to the House as a DFLer. He defeated Bill Glahn, also of Edina, 55.8 to 44.1 percent. It was one of the key districts in the House, and one half of the District 49 Senate race, one of the most expensive of the year. It's also part of the ring of suburbs that are the hardest fought in the Legislature this year. This is District 49A.

In the other half of the 49th district, DFLer Paul Rosenthal is leading Republican Terry Jacobson with 15 of 18 precincts reporting, 53 to 47 percent. That's District 49B.

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10:45 p.m.

In Edina (District 49), DFLer Melisa Franzen is leading GOP State Rep. Keith Downey, 52.5 to 47.4 percent, with 91 percent of precincts in. 

In the eastern suburbs (District 39), Julie Bunn of Lake Elmo is leading Karen Housley, St. Mary's Point, 51 to 49 percent, with 78 percent of precincts reporting. That's District 39.

That's two key Senate seats. Few of the rest have enough precincts to judge.

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Whether Republicans or Democrats will hold majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate come January is a question voters across the state are answering today. 

A handful of high-profile individual contests, such as the one between U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL challenger Jim Graves in the 6th District, have drawn a lot of attention. 

But whether Republicans maintain control of the statehouse or lose one or both chambers to Democrats will affect a wide range of local issues, from how Minnesotans buy health insurance to how the state faces the next projected budget shortfall.

All 201 legislative seats are up for grabs this election, thanks to redistricting. New district maps have changed the makeup of many districts, making them less secure for incumbents and even triggering a few incumbent vs. incumbent contests. Both Republicans and Democrats are hoping the presidential election and two state constitutional amendments, one on voter ID and the other on marriage, will bring out their supporters.

Two years ago, voters elected Republicans en masse to the Legislature, awarding them control of both chambers for the first time in 38 years. Many watchers think Democrats have a shot at retaking at least one chamber today. They would need to pick up four seats in the Minnesota Senate to win the majority, and six seats in the Minnesota House.

GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers told MPR News' Tom Scheck recently that he thinks his party will hold onto the House. 

"It's still a good Republican mood out there," Zellers said. "But more importantly, I would say 95 percent of the reason I believe we'll hold the majority is based on the candidates. They fit their districts better than their Democrat opponents."

But some voters have expressed dissatisfaction with how Republicans have governed, and that could affect election results, according to Dane Smith, president of the progressive think tank Growth & Justice. Voters might be turned off by "the perception that these majorities have been intransigent when it comes to making the basic deals," he said.

Candidates are squaring off in every corner of the state. Some of the tightest battles are in the metro-area suburbs of Eagan and Edina, and the outstate areas of Willmar and Bemidji, according to a map of  races to watch compiled by MPR News.

"Those races are going to be interesting to watch because the party that loses those races already starts the night at a disadvantage," Scheck said during an online political chat last Friday. 

Because the stakes are so high, both parties and outside interest groups have spent record millions of dollars to sway Minnesota voters. Smith, of Growth & Justice, and Peter J. Nelson, director of public policy for the conservative Center of the American Experiment, offered competing views of how a victory by either party might affect some of the most pressing issues likely to be in play at the Legislature next year. 

HEALTH INSURANCE EXCHANGE

The federal Affordable Care Act requires the state to establish a health insurance exchange where individuals and small groups can shop for insurance. Gov. Mark Dayton has pushed ahead on fulfilling the mandate, but in the face of strong Republican resistance, has said he'll wait until after the election to sort out the particulars of how the exchange might work.

Smith thinks DFL control of one or both chambers of the Legislature would "strengthen the governor's hand and propel us toward speedier enactment and implementation of the Affordable Care Act." Even under Republican leadership, he said, Minnesota will likely end up with an exchange, depending on what happens at the federal level. 

"The states have to comply with federal law," he said.  

Nelson said that if Republicans remain in charge, "They will have to pick one of two bad choices."

"The first bad choice is to have to implement an insurance exchange that is going to extend the arm of the federal government into Minnesota and further make Minnesota an extension of the federal government," he said. "The other is to do nothing and work toward making sure the state doesn't build an exchange. Then the federal government steps in and we may very well lose control of our marketplace and that is not a good option. I would hope there is a way to move forward and find some sort of middle ground."

He said legislators could press for more flexibility. "The primary purpose for the exchanges was to distribute subsidies," he said. "That could be done outside of the exchange." 

VOTER ID

Polling shows that the state constitutional amendment requiring photo identification to vote could go either way. If it does pass, the Legislature would have to draft rules governing how the new requirement would work, such as what constitutes an acceptable form of ID and how IDs would be verified at the polls.

Nelson said he thinks that if the amendment passes and Republicans maintain control of the Legislature, implementation will be simple. 

"The Republican legislators have been very clear all along that this amendment is not intended to radically change our election system," he said. "You still will see same-day registration and absentee voting and mail-in balloting. It will still be easy to vote but hard to cheat." 

He said people who don't have identification and have a hard time getting around could apply by mail using notarized documents.  

Republicans wouldn't act alone, Nelson said. "They will have to get the governor's signature on this. They are going to have to work hard to make this piece of legislation something the governor accepts and signs."

If Democrats control one or both legislative chambers and the amendment passes, the will of voters will have to be satisfied, said Smith. 

"If we have new majorities, that legislation will look a whole lot different than if the current majorities stay," said Smith. "I think under a new majority, the language that determines what IDs are acceptable would be more permissive." 

Smith predicted the matter could end up in court, depending on how implementation is handled.  "There could be a real brawl over it."

BUDGET

According to Minnesota Management and Budget, the state could be facing another budget shortfall in the upcoming biennium. Last year, gridlock between Republicans and Democrats over how to solve a deficit led to a 20-day government shutdown. Dayton has said he'd like to raise taxes on the wealthy. Republicans have resisted raising taxes.

"If one chamber or the other changes hands," said Smith, "I think the case for some sort of revenue increase is strengthened, whether it's a partial restoration of the income tax rates before the [then-Gov. Jesse] Ventura cuts in 1999 or 2000, or an expansion of the sales tax base. One of those things will happen if control is lost of one chamber or the other." 

Smith said no matter which party rules the Legislature, "there is a long-term structural and demographic need for more revenue. We have an older population and an increasingly impoverished, young population that needs investment and economic security. Taxes will be needed to meet our public obligations."

Nelson said if Republicans hold their majorities and are facing a deficit, the focus will be on "prioritizing our spending. In the past, we haven't done enough prioritization of where we are putting our state's money and what we are getting for the money we are spending." 

He predicted the human services budget would get a hard look. 

"We may have some substantial savings in helping the human services budget if the premium tax credits for Obamacare move forward. We can move a lot of people on MinnesotaCare into premium tax credits." 

Republicans would not agree to raise taxes, Nelson said. "I think taxes, especially taxing the rich, are off the table. But I do see possibilities for real tax reform," such as expanding the sales tax.

GUBERNATORIAL RACE IN 2014

Gov. Dayton has said he will run for re-election in 2014. And a host of prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Zellers, have been mentioned as possible challengers. Whether voters today favor Democrats or Republicans could send strong signals about the upcoming gubernatorial race.

"When Republicans took control in 2010, it was a wave election that rode a lot of them in," said Nelson. "If the Democrats take control, it's easy to write that off as a correction. But the truth is, Minnesota is becoming more conservative." 

If Republicans hold the House and Senate, he said, "It puts a few people in a strong position to run in a governor's race. One is Kurt Zellers. If (Sen.) David Hann wants to run again, he is in a good position."

Smith said if Democrats take control, the pressure will be on Dayton. 

"If he gets majorities, he will have to produce something, some major achievement. If there is improvement in people's lives that is achieved as a result of a new majority, then he is in a stronger position for reelection." 

In fact, the governor could fare well even if Republicans hold the line, Smith said. 

"It will energize his base to get him re-elected and make the case that if he's not the governor, then the extremists will control everything and we won't have any economic security in the state at all."