Decision time for DFL

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December 18, 2012 // UPDATED 3:46 pm - December 23, 2012
By: Nick Halter
Southwest Rep. Paul Thissen will be the next Speaker of the House.
Nick Halter
Minneapolis lawmakers gear up for legislative session

In the back room of Turtle Bread in South Minneapolis, a few dozen civically engaged residents peppered DFL state lawmakers with questions about what they’re going to do now that they have control at the Capitol for the first time in 22 years.

“What are you going to do to lower property taxes?,” one person asked.

Another person wanted to know if all the work he and others did on defeating the marriage amendment would result in a bill to legalize gay marriage.

Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-61B) was one of the lawmakers in the room. The Southwest resident will be Speaker of the House next year, and he’ll play a big roll in shaping the DFL’s agenda. He’ll have to walk a fine line between pleasing the groups that helped the DFL win majorities in the House and Senate, while also not being accused of “overreaching.”

“We’re going to take on some of these big challenges,” Thissen told the crowd. “We may not get them all right, we may not fix them all the right way, but at least we’ve got to make the effort with this historic opportunity — this first-time-in-a-generation opportunity to actually take on some of these big challenges and do them the right way.”

The DFL has made it clear that budget and tax reform will be high on its to-do list when the Legislature convenes on Jan. 8. What exactly that reform looks like is still uncertain. The state faces a projected $1.1 billion deficit for the next biennium.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Minneapolis DFLers have made it clear they favor tax hikes on the highest earners. But newly elected DFLers in more fiscally conservative districts might be hesitant to get on board with such a proposal.

“There’s the potential there for some big ideas that are going to be challenging — that are going to provoke some inside-the-DFL-family debates as we all look at how they impact our constituents,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, a South Minneapolis DFLer who will chair the House Property and Local Tax Division.

Davnie mentioned possibility broadening the sales tax to clothing and services, but also lowering the sales tax rate.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said property tax relief should be the Legislature’s top priority.

“We’ve lived through years of Local Government Aid cuts, and adding insult to injury, the Republicans did a targeted property tax increase a year ago,” Rybak said. “Well, they got voted out of office. Democrats came in talking about tax relief and that’s certainly job one, and I am really happy that’s the main thing I hear from them.”

Legalize same-sex marriage?

While some DFLers, like Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-62) of South Minneapolis, said they believe same-sex marriage would be legalized in 2013, not everyone is as optimistic. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk told his local paper it wouldn’t be a priority. 

“I really believe we’re going to get marriage equity this year,” Hayden said.

Davnie, however, said legalizing same-sex marriage would not be politically easy. He said some DFLers were elected in rural districts where 65 percent of voters supported the same-sex marriage ban.

“I think at best you can say we’re a 50-50 state on that question,” Davnie said. “On top of that, in my district to the east of here, 88 percent voted no. Contrast that with the district of … Andrew Falk, a DFLer — 65 percent of his district voted yes.”

Rybak said the Legislature should legalize gay marriage.

“Oh, Absolutely. There is no question in my mind. I support the strategy they have to put property tax relief and budget reform first,” Rybak said. “It is absolutely time to give everyone in Minnesota the equal right to marry.”

Local requests

Dayton has said he would consider another bonding bill in 2013. Minneapolis has several items on a wish list, should a capital investments bill emerge in the Legislature.

Both the city of Minneapolis and the Park and Recreation Board have Legislative agendas.

The Park Board’s includes requests for a $7 million Sculpture Garden renovation project. The city’s top bonding request is a $25 million makeover of Nicollet Mall.

The city also wants new bicycling laws, including the ability to lower residential speed zones.

Others priorities include efforts to reduce youth sex trafficking, funding for light rail projects, foreclosure reform and early voting.

Thissen said that if the Legislature tackles social issues and racial disparities, he won’t back down from “overreaching.”

“If not overreaching means we’re not going to take on some of the really tough challenges we face,” he said, “well, then we are going overreach.”

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.