Minnesota DFL, now controlling Legislature, looks ahead

DFL leaders
DFL leaders in the Minnesota Legislature met with Gov. Mark Dayton, also a DFLer, on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012 to discuss their plans for the upcoming session after their party took control of both houses of the Legislature in the Nov. 6 election. Left to right: Rep. Paul Thissen, House DFL Leader; Sen. Tom Bakk, Senate DFL Leader; and Dayton.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

Just two years after losing their control of the Minnesota House and Senate, the Minnesota DFL has regained its majorities in both chambers.

Now, with control over the Legislature and the Governor's office, the question is what the DFL plans to do over the next two years.

"People ask, 'what will happen with a DFL Governor and a DFL Legislature,'" said Dayton to a crowd at the DFL's election party Tuesday night. "And I say, 'Progress. Progress will happen. We'll trade gridlock for progress.'"

Over the din of victory bellows and a band playing Michael Jackson covers at their victory parties, DFL lawmakers and leaders said that progress may mean tax increases, property tax changes, increased school spending and even legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.

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But accomplishing those goals may be easier said than done. A slate of new DFL lawmakers who ran on promises of moderation and compromise, and a Republican contingent that still oppose DFL priorities could complicate the process.

In last night's speech, Dayton said he wants to return to his top campaign pledge: to raise taxes on the state's wealthiest.

"I don't know what the legislative majorities will believe, but I do know what I believe," said Dayton. "And I know what I'll keep working for every day that I have the honor to be governor of this great state: a fairer tax system where the richest Minnesotans pay more of their fair share of taxes."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk tempered Dayton's pledge a bit saying that he doesn't necessarily see tax increases on the agenda, but that tax reform is a likely prospect.

"Tax reform is pretty high on our agenda," he said. "I think what Minnesotans can look for in this next session is a budget that's balanced in an honest way and a tax system that's more equitable for the residents of our state.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said there's little Dayton could say in the spirit of compromise to persuade Republicans to back a tax plan.

"Our theme, our emphasis going forward will be jobs," Senjem said. "I think we believe whole heartedly that you just don't do that by taxing your job creators additionally and making our state less competitive from the stand point of jobs and the economy."

DFL leaders also seem intent to change course on a long-standing property tax credit that was eliminated during the last session to balance the state's budget. The market value homestead credit effectively kept property taxes down for homeowners, but it was replaced with a new system that Democrats say hasn't helped the Minnesotans much.

It became a major talking point for Democrats during the campaign, who said that Republicans had effectively raised taxes on most Minnesotans.

Minnesotans also rejected a constitutional amendment that would have effectively banned same-sex marriage, which leaves the door open to legalize the practice here.

DFL Sen. John Marty of Roseville expressed confidence that it could happen soon.

"I think we just keep on moving forward on it now," Marty said.

Last night, DFL lawmakers also said that increasing funding for higher education and ending the practice of borrowing money from public schools to balance the state's budget would be in their mix of priorities.

But a tax increase? House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen was reluctant to say. Some of the newest members of the Legislature might have a hard time selling the idea to constituents.

"The bottom line is that we're going to have a lot of new members coming into the House and we need to figure out where all those members are, too. It's going to be a very different legislature," he said. "We need to get a structurally balanced budget, but we're certainly not going to choose what all of our options are right now."

Many of the Legislature's newest members come from swing districts that tend to be moderate.

Take Senator-Elect Melisa Franzen who defeated Republican Rep. Keith Downey in Edina, arguably the most competitive legislative race in the state. She ran on a pro-business platform and a message of compromise in a wealthier suburban area that may be less inclined to accept new taxes.

"We are more moderate, we are more in touch with business than we've probably seen in the last few elections," she said comparing new legislators like herself to the party establishment.

Shifting money around to balance the budget and shutting down the government "doesn't work in the real world, and it shouldn't work for government," she said. "We need to be responsible with our tax dollars, and we need people who are going to make those tough decisions and work together."

Todd Rapp, a DFL analyst and president of Himle Rapp & Co. public relations firm, said that it's the nature of politics for legislative freshmen to initially appear out of step with their leadership.

"A lot of [the newly elected lawmakers] heard at the door 'We want to figure out a way for you to reach across the aisle and work with the other party,' and they clearly feel a commitment to that," Rapp said. "But they also feel a commitment to the governor. This is part of their maturation as lawmakers: balancing those different factors while still listening carefully to what their constituents are saying."

Thissen said that DFL leadership will need to balance the needs of their newly elected freshmen against being too cautious.

"There is a clear message out there that people want an actual realistic fix to our budget and secondly that they want some fairness and simplicity brought back to our tax system," Thissen said. "The danger is that we get too bogged down in focusing on little bits and pieces of what that broad tax reform might look like and in fact we should take it from a much broader perspective."