DFL in control as legislative session begins

Foung Hawj
New State Sen. Foung Hawj, D-St. Paul, center behind young boy, looks around to make sure all his family members gather for a photograph, after a mock swearing-in at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., before the 2013 Legislative session got underway Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. Hawj is the third Hmong to serve in the Minnesota Senate.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

As the 2013 Legislative session got under way today, Democrats who took control of the House and Senate pledged to govern for the good of the entire state.

Although their Republican counterparts were quick to point out that there will be plenty of partisan disagreements ahead on taxes and spending, Democrats said the two parties would have to work together to solve the state's problems, starting with efforts to erase the projected $1.1 billion budget deficit over the next two years.

"It's going to take a lot of hard work and collaboration and discussion," said state Rep. Mary Sawatsky, DFL-Willmar, one of 42 new House members. "It's not going to be a simple task, but it's something that is one everybody's mind, and we have to dig in and get going."

This is the first time in 25 years that there are DFL majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and a Democratic governor. Lawmakers will have to pass a two-year budget in coming months.

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In the Minnesota House there were 72 Democrats and 60 Republicans on hand for opening day. Two seats are vacant pending special elections.

During a brief acceptance speech, newly elected House Speaker Paul Thissen said he has high hopes for the session.

"At the end of the day, I hope one of the things or maybe the main thing this Legislature is remembered for can be summed up in a couple of words, and that is that they governed well, because that's what the people of Minnesota sent us here to do," said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "We owe that to ourselves. We owe that to our constituents. Now, I look forward to getting to work."

Rep. Kelby Woodard
Republican state Rep. Kelby Woodard of Belle Plaine with his 16-month old son Kevin Woodard in the State Capitol on the opening day of the 2013 legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

But governing doesn't always come easy in the House, even during the largely ceremonial proceedings of opening day. Republicans took issue with the new DFL committee structure that places agriculture finance under the control of the environment and natural resources committee chaired by state Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.

State Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, a farmer who during the previous session served as chair of the Agriculture Finance Panel, tried unsuccessfully to change the committee assignment.

"Agriculture is a noble profession, a noble endeavor," Hamilton said. "Now is not the time to be diminishing agriculture in any way, shape or form."

Following session, Wagenius downplayed the GOP concerns.

"We haven't seen the governor's proposal for financing the Department of Agriculture yet," she said. "But I can assure you we are going to give the department a solid budget."

In the Minnesota Senate, returning Republicans are also getting used to their new status after two years in the majority. There were no first-day flare-ups but Senate Minority Leader David Hann predicted the session will have plenty of disagreements.

"There are perspectives that we share, but there are things that we differ on, and we think that is constructive to have robust debate on things where we may have differing views," said Hann, R-Eden Prairie. "We think that out of that there may come good."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk agreed with Hann's point about differences. But Bakk, DFL-Cook, urged his newly elected colleagues to leave behind the rhetoric of last year's campaigns.

"Always carry with you the idea that first made you run — the idea that you wanted to change something and be part of a better state," Bakk said. "That's what governing is all about."

DFL House and Senate leaders plan to outline their first bills of the session later this week. Thissen said the priorities in the House will include a new property tax rebate program, implementation of a state health insurance exchange and a payback schedule for the money owed to schools as part of previous budget deals. Thursday is the first day for bill introductions.

Gov. Mark Dayton will unveil his two-year budget proposal and a plan for updating the tax code, later this month.