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Minnesota lawmakers weigh presidential politics

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Minnesota lawmakers on both sides of the political divide are finding it impossible to leave the contentious presidential election in the rear-view mirror.

That was borne out Thursday as one committee debated proposals to change how Electoral College votes are awarded, and a group of Democratic lawmakers put forward a bill to bar future candidates from the ballot if they don't make their tax returns public. That last proposal was dubbed the TRUMP Act -- short for Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public Act.

The House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee Legislation spent 30 minutes discussing a bill that would potentially split up the state's 10 electoral votes based on how candidates perform across the state. No action was taken, but it was kept alive for possible inclusion in a broader elections package. And it probably will remain viable given that Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt is a co-sponsor.

Like all but two states, Minnesota has always assigned all of its electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner. Since 1976, that's meant Democratic presidential hopefuls have had them in their column.

The proposed change would decide the votes based on outcomes in each congressional district, with the statewide winner getting the remaining two. If such a setup had existed last year, Republican nominee Donald Trump would have earned half of the 10 votes.

The two states where it is now in place have rarely seen split results. It happened in Nebraska in 2008 and Maine last year.

The bill's chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe, said it would make Minnesota a more-attractive place for presidential candidates to visit if it wasn't an all-or-nothing proposition -- for both parties.

"One of the criticisms that you hear is that certain states are flyover or they don't get many visits from presidential candidates because it is assumed they are going to vote a particular way," he said.

Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, said it would be a creative incentive for lawmakers to draw congressional districts to make it more likely their party's presidential candidate gets more electoral votes. Already, few congressional districts in Minnesota and around the country are truly competitive.

Instead, Freiberg tried to swap out the bill with a proposal to make the state's electoral votes match the national popular vote. His amendment failed by a 10-6 vote.

"Everybody understands the concept that if you get more votes, you win," he said. "This amendment would just implement that system."

Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, spoke against the Freiberg plan.

"Our electoral votes should only be decided by the votes of Minnesota citizens, plain and simple," Quam said.

In the state Senate, a group of Democratic lawmakers introduced the bill to tie ballot access to tax return disclosure. It's similar to efforts underway in other states, from New York to California. It would bar the secretary of state from putting a nominee's name on the ballot unless they have released five years of tax returns at least 11 weeks before the election.

It's squarely aimed at Trump, who was the first nominee in recent years who didn't release his tax returns. Trump has said the returns wouldn't reveal anything notable, but people and groups seeking their release said tax documents could shed light on the tycoon's business dealings.

"Clearly there is no doubt we named it the TRUMP Act because he is the most-recent incident of this issue," said state Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park. "We want the public to be informed and we want them to understand why it is so important."

Given that Republicans run both the House and Senate, the bill faces steep odds.