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Ceremony turns quickly into debate on Legislature's opening day

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Justice Paul Thissen says the pledge of allegiance.
Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul Thissen says the Pledge of Allegiance with members of the Minnesota House of Representatives before swearing them in inside the State Capitol in St. Paul Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

On the ceremonial opening day of the 2019 legislative session, first-time members took the oath of office, the House and Senate picked new leaders and legislators dressed for the first day giddily took selfies with their families and friends on the floor.

But just a few hours into the formalities on Tuesday, the Minnesota Legislature quickly went back to its old ways, with a lengthy House debate about process, partisanship and previews of the conflict ahead.

"Welcome to the Minnesota House," new DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said from the floor, after a debate broke out about temporary rules that the Republican minority argued make the process less transparent.

Legislators and their children wiggled in their seats impatiently during the nearly two-hour procedural debate, but new House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who was a speaker for the last four years, didn't relent.

"When they break their promises to Minnesotans I will be here to hold them accountable and they shouldn't expect anything less than that," he said after the session adjourned for the day.

DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, fresh off a vote to make her the third woman ever to hold the job, said the new Democratic majority will be transparent this session, and part of that means letting the minority speak on day one.

"People shouldn't think that just because we should avoid being partisan that we shouldn't have spirited debate," she said.

On the first day, everyone agreed that the 2019 session will be spirited. A divided Legislature, the only one in the nation, must agree to a $48 billion, two-year budget that new DFL Gov. Tim Walz can sign. They will also be looking to agree on a host of other issues, from gun control and health care to ways to make schools safer and child care less expensive.

And they must finish it all by May 20, the constitutional deadline to adjourn the session, or risk heading into a special session or even a possible shutdown of government.

For now, leaders are optimistic.

"We have a fresh start," Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said at a morning news conference to announce GOP priorities for the session. "We have a governor that is now in office that feels like he would be more pragmatic."

Gazelka and the other 33 members of his caucus weren't on the ballot last fall, and Capitol watchers can expect much of the same from them, he said. "We have a new governor and a new House but we are still the same," he said.

But the outlines of division are already forming. In a rollout of their top priorities on Tuesday, Republican Senate leaders said they do not want to extend an expiring tax that helps pay for health care programs, which Democrats support, and they aren't inclined to pass any kind of a buy-in option to state health care programs, something Walz and Democrats in the House ran on last year.

Republicans also don't support a gas tax increase, but Walz does.

"If you want to propose tolling, if you want to propose a wheelage tax, then let's have those debates and let the people of Minnesota have those," Walz said on the session's opening day. "But this is not a debate where we are sticking up and not going to do anything." 

Walz said not extending the health care tax is a "non-starter" with him.

One of the other big debates ahead was impossible to avoid on Tuesday, as groups supporting tougher gun control laws flooded the halls of the Capitol to greet legislators as they entered the House and Senate.

They cheered for Democratic legislators who support universal criminal background checks for gun purchases and what are known as red flag protective laws. There will be two "common-sense" gun control bills in the House DFL's first 10 proposals unveiled Wednesday, Hortman said.

John Wazlawik, father of freshman Rep. Ami Wazlawik, DFL.
John Wazlawik, the father of DFL freshman Rep. Ami Wazlawik, takes a cookie from anti-gun violence activists as he enters the House chamber to watch his daughter be sworn in.
Evan Frost | MPR News

One freshman legislator, Hunter Cantrell, D-Savage, addressed the crowd as he walked into the chamber. "Thank you for being here, this is your House," he said. "We are here today because we refuse to lose any more lives to violence."

Despite signs of potential rancor ahead, freshman Rep. Jay Xiong, D-St. Paul, was excited to be back at the House as a legislator, after working as a staffer six years ago.

He's also happy the House is now more diverse than ever, after voters elected five new members of color in the last election.

"It's important that we have competent people who can do their job and serve well," he said. "And it's important that we are representative of the people of the state."