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Don Davis and Andrew Tellijohn, State Capitol Bureau, Published May 12 2012

Stadium debate ‘took all the energy’ this legislative session in Minnesota

ST. PAUL – Democrats’ term for the just-completed Minnesota legislative session is “do nothing,” but if that is true, the House speaker said, it is because of what he calls Gov. Mark Dayton’s top priority.

“I blame it all on the stadium,” said Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Zellers, who opposed the stadium financing plan, said “it took up so much time, so much air.”

Democratic Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth sided with Zellers: “This is what kind of took all the energy out of the room, all the energy out of the building.”

Both sides talk more about failings than successes, blaming each other.

“I would say the session was disappointing overall, salvaged by the last two major issues” of public works and stadium spending, Democrat Dayton said.

“If there would be a theme, it would be going from red to black,” Zellers said of the state budget ending with a bit of a surplus after recovering from a big deficit.

Dayton, Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, claim to have good personal relationships, but the governor said being friends only goes so far when they are negotiating contentious policy issues.

“Compromise means we will do it their way,” Dayton said of Republicans.

Zellers said Dayton ignores GOP priorities.

The two-year session ended on the 119th day Thursday, tying it for the second longest and just one day short of the number the state constitution allows.

Some point to approving a Vikings stadium construction plan as a premier accomplishment done with bipartisan work. But as Zellers said, the stadium did not fit into the normal partisan column. Two Republicans led the charge, but more Democrats than Republicans voted for the bill, as well as a public works package.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the session “was about to go down … as the biggest do-nothing session,” but it did not because Democrats were able to put up the votes to approve a stadium.

Bakk said the session likely will have the fewest number of bills signed into law since 1869, something Republicans who believe in smaller government consider a plus.

Republicans decry Dayton’s opposition to major tax relief for businesses. The GOP passed bills to eliminate a statewide business property tax and do other things to help business, saying that is the best way to create jobs. Dayton vetoed major tax changes.

At the same time, Dayton and other Democrats argued for a major public works bill as a job creator. Dayton wanted to borrow $775 million to fix and build public facilities statewide, as well as

$241 million to renovate a decaying Capitol building.

Republicans wanted to spend much less, but eventually compromised on a $496 million bill including a beginning of Capitol work. Dayton signed it Friday, saying he wanted to spend more but that what the Legislature passed was better than nothing.

Some lawmakers said the public works and stadium bills, as well as a few others, prove state leaders worked together.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, for instance, credited GOP leaders and Dayton for approving initiatives surrounding business permitting, protecting school trust land and fee increases for hunting and fishing.

“When you look back over the last couple of years, the governor has signed a lot of bills where we worked together with the administration,” he said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be able to do.”

Two constitutional amendments that will be in front of voters Nov. 6, were partisan and controversial. One would ban gay marriages, the other would require Minnesotans to show photo identification before voting.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said the state’s fiscal condition has improved steadily during the two-year biennium, primarily due to Republican leadership during the past two sessions.

“There is no dispute that Minnesota is in a better economic position than it was two years ago,” he said, adding that he is hopeful the improving economy will wipe out the rest of a projected deficit before the 2013 session.

Reinert said the past two years have been disappointing for the state and reflect a lack of statesmanship.

Reinert blamed Republicans, saying the majority party often did not agree within its ranks.

“We don’t have folks in the Legislature anymore who are willing to be Minnesotans first and other labels second,” Reinert said. “That was evident in the Senate. We would sit on the floor for hours waiting for the majority to hash things out behind closed doors and then they would come to the floor and be clearly within disarray in their own caucus.”

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Danielle Nordine contributed to this story. Nordine and Don Davis report for Forum Communications Co. Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer.