‘Let's get to work:' Minnesota lawmakers return to tackle divisive issues

Minnesota lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Tuesday as tough debates on taxes, gun restrictions and health care await.

Governor Tim Walz is prodding legislators in the nation’s only divided state Legislature to be an example for the country. But in the session’s opening hour, Walz and Senate Republicans split on some of the biggest issues.

The Legislature includes many new faces and a new House speaker, Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park). With Democrats now in control of the chamber, Hortman defeated Republican Leader Kurt Daudt for the speakership Tuesday.

“Hardworking Minnesotans deserve a hardworking Legislature,” Hortman said. “I look forward to the work and the challenges ahead. Let's get to work.”

Senate Republican Leader Paul Gazelka remains in the top job in his chamber, where the GOP holds a 34-32 lead with one seat vacant and contested in a Feb. 5 special election.

Senate Republicans unveiled their first five bills Tuesday, including school mental health grants, increasing the income limit to get Minnesota’s child care tax credit, and seeking to lower health care costs.

But they also indicated that two of Walz’s top priorities, a gas tax increase and a public buy-in to the MinnesotaCare health insurance program, were nonstarters in their chamber.

“MinnesotaCare buy-in is basically government-run health care,” Gazelka said. “In the end, that is a solution that will bring us to disaster.”

MinnesotaCare’s lower reimbursement rates will cause hospitals and clinics to lose money, Gazelka said.

But Walz did not back down from the debate Tuesday, having won the 2018 governor’s race while advocating for a public buy-in. Instead, he said Republicans were using a failed talking point.

“It was rejected soundly in this last election across Minnesota. It was rejected because I ran on the idea that we can do this and – I remind them – got more votes than anybody in Minnesota’s history,” Walz told reporters.

Walz also said he was waiting to see Senate Republicans’ alternative to fund road and bridge improvements without a gas tax increase. He has said he will propose an increase in his budget due in February.

Meanwhile, gun control and gun rights activists converged on the Capitol for the first day of session, hoping to make their case to lawmakers on one of the session’s most divisive issues.

A few hundred Moms Demand Action members handed out chocolate chip cookies to returning lawmakers and called on them to tighten gun restrictions. Walz and Hortman have advocated for universal background checks and so-called “red flag” laws allowing law enforcement to seize guns from people who have threatened others.

Walz, who was once endorsed by the National Rifle Association, said the two measures are “nearly universally accepted by the public.”

“I think this is one of those discussions where we can find some common ground that would do what I keep talking about, show some wins and show some successes on difficult issues to the rest of the country,” he said.

But gun rights advocates fought back, arguing that Democrats do not have a mandate to pass stronger laws.

“Not everyone voted for a Democrat, did they? There was a lot of people who didn't vote for Democrats. Not everyone is for gun control,” said Michele Eben of Conservatives for Action, a group that organized a smaller counter-protest at the Capitol.