Minnesota Legislature has new faces, unfinished business in 2019

Minnesota lawmakers will return to the state Capitol next week, trying to avoid a repeat of the power struggle and breakdown in spring 2018.

Two of the three top players will be new. While each of them pledge to work with the others to avoid end-of-session gridlock, Minnesota will have the country’s only divided state Legislature.

Democrats who will take control of the House have outlined plans to move noncontroversial items quickly, so they don’t become bargaining chips late in the session. Top House Democrats and Senate Republicans, who will maintain a one-seat edge in their chamber, have both said they don’t want to see massive end-of-session bills like in previous years.

With the end of the 2018 session looming, Republicans who then controlled both houses crammed dozens of priorities into two omnibus bills. They expected DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to sign them, because they included items he wanted.

But Dayton had a surprise, quickly vetoing both bills. The maneuvers by both sides laid bare the deteriorating relationships at the Capitol.

Dayton called the impasse a “failure of government.” Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he was “actually embarrassed for the governor,” adding “I don’t know how we move forward from here.”

Dayton didn’t run for re-election, and Gov.-elect Tim Walz will replace him after Monday’s inauguration. House Republicans were wiped out at the ballot box, with Democrats picking up 18 seats and retaking the majority.

Incoming House Speaker Melissa Hortman has said she and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka have agreed to quickly move forward on noncontroversial items that failed as part of 2018’s end-of-session meltdown. Those include funding for the fight against opioid addiction, she said. 

That would clear the way for the tougher debates. They include: the looming battle over increasing Minnesota’s gas tax, imposing tighter restrictions on gun ownership, and creating paid family and sick leave.

In a sign of the challenges to come, Walz tweeted a New Year’s message in which he pledged to “bridge divides, find common ground.” It remains to be seen how involved Walz, a longtime congressman, will be in brokering deals between the House and Senate.