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Don Davis and Andrew Tellijohn / State Capitol Bureau, Published January 05 2011

Minnesota Legislature: On opening day, newcomers see opportunities in challenges

ST. PAUL – If great challenges lead to great opportunities, as the old saying goes, Minnesota lawmakers have a whale of an opportunity this year.

“There are fantastic opportunities out there,” said new Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, one of 60 new legislators, mostly Republican, who took office Tuesday.

Like many of the 201 lawmakers, Carlson brought family members along for the mostly ceremonial first day of the 2011 session, but he was thinking about the next few months.

“I am anxious to get through today to get to work,” he said.

Lawmakers’ big job, fixing a $6.2 billion state budget deficit, was on their minds Tuesday as they opened their 2011 session, but smiles dominated opening day. Few wanted to talk about the budget shortfall, and a difficulty finding middle ground between Republican legislative leaders and new Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

As the Senate opened, each senator walked to the front of the chamber to deliver an election certificate.

Lawmakers from both parties said they were optimistic, but some admitted to knowing things could turn south.

“Nothing has gone wrong,” quipped Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker.

Howes was looking forward to attacking the state’s problems as a member of the majority party but indicated he was willing to work with Democrats.

“Everything is going to be fine until someone draws the line in the sand,” he said, adding that he thinks “everyone is going to be hesitant to draw that line.”

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, newly elected to the upper body from the House, was among the most realistic in admitting there will be problems between Dayton and Republicans.

“I’m not making any summer plans,” Reinert said, referring to a chance lawmakers and Dayton will not figure out how to plug the budget hole by the time the Legislature must adjourn on May 23. Some around the Capitol predict a special session will be needed to enact a two-year budget that begins on July 1.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, was being as optimistic as possible, being in the House minority.

“We are ready to cooperate responsibly,” she said, taking up a Dayton position that it likely is impossible to cut enough state sending to balance the budget.

Dayton’s budget proposal is due Feb. 15, expected to be followed by a Republican counterproposal. Until then, the session work may appear slow.

Dayton wants a combination of state spending cuts and increasing taxes on Minnesota’s top earners. Republicans concentrate on cuts.

In his inaugural speech Monday, Dayton listed two state tax cuts in the same category as wars and recessions. “We stagger from one huge deficit to the next,” he said.

New House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, sounded like someone who wants to work with Democrats.

Zellers, a Devils Lake, N.D., native, promised taxpayers that lawmakers would use their money responsibly “just like you would if you were spending them on your families’ budgets.”

He asked Minnesotans, whether they own businesses or make sandwiches for a living, to share any ideas they might have “to get our great state working again. … You will lead the recovery.”

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, and Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, said being in the minority will change the power structure but not their preparation or the issues they espouse.

Balancing the budget will require compromise and both sides are interested in job creation, Koenen said. Eken added that he has always tried to work across the aisle. “That’s the way it should be and that’s the way I’m going to continue to be.”

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com