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Gridlock haunts halls of Minnesota Capitol

ST. PAUL Minnesota lawmakers are back. And they say this year will be different than last year's divisive legislative session, which was fraught with partisan gridlock and culminated in a historic three-week government shutdown. But as the 2012 l...

ST. PAUL

Minnesota lawmakers are back.

And they say this year will be different than last year's divisive legislative session, which was fraught with partisan gridlock and culminated in a historic three-week government shutdown.

But as the 2012 legislative session begins today, most anyone who has walked the halls of the state Capitol knows it's easier said than done.

With every legislator up for re-election this year, Republicans grappling with divisions in their ranks and the potential for more constitutional amendments on the ballot, there are plenty of potential landmines, threatening the quick and quiet session legislative leaders want.

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Last year, the GOP took control of both chambers for the first time in almost four decades. Democrats and even some Republicans blamed some of the GOP newcomers and their unwillingness to compromise for lawmakers' inability to get things done.

"I do believe that both majority caucuses last year had some people where compromise is a weakness and intransigence is a virtue," Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said last week. "And I think it's hard for leaders to lead when they have extreme subcaucus elements. I hope it will be different this session."

There is no doubt those deep divisions within the Republican caucuses remain, said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Jacobs said many of those new lawmakers arrived last year with an enormous amount of enthusiasm but little to no experience in public service.

And their commitment to their principles hasn't wavered.

"The 'what can we get done' concept is just not widely shared," Jacobs said. "We've moved from kind of bargaining on the details to a collision over principles. And that's a recipe for some pretty serious divisions."

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, is one of those newcomers who had no political experience before he won his Senate seat in 2010. He said there is a willingness to compromise on certain issues. He didn't like the spending and school aid shift in last year's budget deal, but he voted for it because it didn't raise taxes.

But he and his colleagues won't back down on the core values voters sent them to the Capitol to represent.

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"What you're seeing is a group of people that aren't career politicians, but they believe in something and that's why they're here. I believe in limited government and personal freedom," Thompson said. "I won't compromise on principles....If that makes me an extremist, so be it."

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, the longest-serving legislative leader in state history, said there's a generation of politicians being elected on both sides of the political spectrum who view not budging as a badge of honor.

"And that, of course, contributes to the gridlock. The fact of the matter is in the legislative process, compromise is a necessity," Moe said.

More amendments on tap

Efforts by some Republicans to amend the state constitution on an array of contentious issues also could ramp up the political rhetoric and divisiveness this session.

Republicans already put an amendment on this November's ballot to ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. But it might not be the only one -- making labor union involvement voluntary, requiring a supermajority in the Legislature to raise taxes and mandating photo identification at the polls -- also could be in the mix.

Why put these issues to the voters rather than try to pass a state law? Unlike a bill, the governor can't veto a constitutional amendment proposed by a majority of the Legislature.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said revisiting issues that were contentious last year and vetoed by the governor isn't helpful or productive -- whether it's through legislation or through constitutional amendments.

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"Let's not just throw things out there that might make good campaign rhetoric. There was plenty of campaign literature written last year, both caucuses have plenty," Bakk said. "So this year, let's dig in and roll up our sleeves."

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Ham Lake, sponsored the voting photo ID requirement last year and has decided to send it to the ballot, instead of to the governor for a possible veto.

"Disagreeing is part of the process. Sometimes its philosophical, sometimes its partisan," said Kiffmeyer, a former Minnesota secretary of state. "I'm not trying to do away with that process. But sometimes amending the constitution is appropriate. And I think people voting on the rules of their elections is very appropriate."

Observers say if Republicans put too many constitutional amendments on the ballot, it could backfire and ultimately hurt them at the polls come November.

Former Republican Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina said it would be an overload of divisive issues voters don't care about.

"Those are things they shouldn't be talking about. They should be talking about what people want to hear about," Erhardt said. "And that's truly balancing the state budget and investing in education."

Redistricting ahead

This year, legislators will have one big motivator to get done early with few fireworks. Political maps are being redrawn, and every member of the House and Senate will be up for re-election. Many will have new territory to cover and constituents to meet.

That desire could fuel legislators to stick to their promise to focus on job creation and making government more efficient and responsive to the people it serves.

The U's Jacobs said there are lots of people out there with doom-and-gloom expectations for the legislative session. There's a good chance it could be disastrous, he said, but it's also not uncommon to see divided government produce significant legislation.

He points to work on school choice done more than two decades ago, when Minnesota lawmakers approved an expansive open-enrollment program that permits students to attend the public school of their choice and became the first state in the nation to open charter schools.

"I would say there's a real possibility for some real discord. But there are some areas where this could be a breakthrough year," Jacobs said. "In other words, we shouldn't be so pessimistic that we're not aware of the potential progress."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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