GOP's new muscle may remake Minnesota Capitol agenda

Kurt Daudt leads House member to press conference.
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, left front, leads a number of present and new House members to meet with the news media at the Capitol Nov. 9.
Jim Mone | AP file

From guns to workplace benefits, the new power alignment at Minnesota's Capitol is certain to reshape what issues rise or fall when the Legislature returns in January.

Republicans will have full control of the Minnesota Legislature starting Jan. 3. That means they'll determine the agenda, too, and dictate which parts of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton's wish list get traction.

Groups that wanted expanded gun background checks in Minnesota thought they were on the verge of making it happen. They spent loads of money and time in select House races in search of a Democratic majority to get them over the top. But in the election, they fell considerably short there and went backwards in the Senate.

Now, the other side sees opportunity.

"With Republican majorities, with strong pro-Second Amendment majorities in both houses, I don't anticipate any hearings on gun control legislation like we've seen in the past," said Bryan Strawser, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and Political Action Committee.

Instead of playing defense, Strawser said he hopes to see movement on bills to reframe the state's self-defense laws, to reduce fees for handgun permits and to recognize more carry permits from other states.

"I do anticipate that we'll see bills come forward in 2017 that are around strengthening the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners in Minnesota," Strawser said.

The gun issue is just one of several in store for a shakeup. Republicans have considerably more power after building their House majority up to 76 seats and gaining hold of the Senate, though with only one seat separating Republicans and Democrats.

Governor Mark Dayton enters a press conference.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton will now have to work across the aisle with the Legislature controlled by Republicans.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP file

The party that holds the gavels decides which bills move and which stall. Of course, they still have to mind Dayton's authority to sign or veto legislation.

"It's going to be unrealistic for Minnesotans to send a group of people that are closely divided and have very deep differences and expect that it is all going to be peace and harmony," Dayton said the day after the election. "They sent us divided government here to St. Paul and they're going to get divided government for better and for worse."

Dayton hasn't said much since and declined to be interviewed for this story. He and his Democratic allies are still trying to make sense of what changes are in store.

Here's just a snapshot of the altered agenda.

• Out: Any new light-rail transit projects or a gas tax hike for road projects.

• In: An asphalt-driven transportation plan fed by existing tax streams and borrowing.

• Likely Out: Expanded early voting or restoration of voting rights for felons.

• Probably In: Proposals to segregate ballots of voters whose registration gets challenged.

• Possibly Out: The MNsure health insurance exchange.

• In: That depends on what President Donald Trump and a unified Republican Congress do with federal health law, which dictates what states must do.

As GOP leaders plot their to-do list, former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said the new alignment shouldn't be viewed as an invitation to make a raft of changes on social issues and that crafting a budget and addressing pressing concerns on health care should remain at the fore.

"I think the new majorities should stay focused on what they heard from voters at the door," he said. "Many that I've talked to didn't hear about those, the social issues. They heard about business climate, about school choice, about education options, about school safety."

Some of the starkest changes could revolve around regulations on businesses, from environmental permitting to benefit packages.

"There are a lot of small business people who have been elected in the newly incoming Legislature," said Minnesota Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Cam Winton. "So we think the next Legislature is going to understand that if we pass one-size-fits-all mandates, that's hurting Minnesotans."

The chamber intends to seek a state law barring cities from adopting their own workplace rules or sick-time ordinances, as has happened in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Winton said the group's members want to scrap automatic inflation increases to the state's minimum wage. The first possible bump under a 2014 law is due to be determined next summer, which would lift the hourly wage floor from its current $9.50 for most employers.

"It's not good policy to put government on autopilot in that way," Winton said. "We think that if the Legislature wants to increase the minimum wage, they should debate that topic and have a vote on it."

Former DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, who was a sponsor of the latest minimum wage law, said Republicans risk going too far.

"If Republicans seek to push an establishment chamber of commerce agenda, which limits workers' ability to earn a better living and work hard for a better life, I would expect Republicans to suffer the same voter wrath that the establishment did in this presidential election," he said.

The Chamber's Winton said a push for a payroll-tax funded paid family and medical leave law that business groups resisted is almost certainly off the table — and for good reason.

"It was important to have flexibility, that employers needed to have the flexibility to have workplace benefits that worked for their workplace," he said.

If the business lobby's enhanced clout halts the drive for up to 12 weeks of partially paid time off, that will be disappointing to Jessica Anderson.

She works for the Children's Defense Fund and is part of the Minnesotans for Paid Family Leave Coalition, which had made some progress last year in airing their issue in the DFL-led Senate.

Anderson said the coalition isn't surrendering and predicted legislators would hear from supporters of the initiative back in their districts.

"If they want to help small businesses to be able to afford to provide these benefits to compete with the larger businesses who are able to provide these kinds of benefits and if they want to help grow our economy," she said, "then they will support paid family leave."

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