Urban legislative leaders make GOP, rural residents leery
East Isles resident Jeff Rosenberg has high hopes for the upcoming legislative session.
With DFLers firmly in control of both the House and the Senate and Minneapolis legislators in the top leadership position of each chamber, Rosenberg is optimistic about seeing more funding for mass transit and an increase in local government aid that could pay for more cops and longer library hours in the city.
At the same time, the University of Minnesota graduate student who counts himself as one of the city's many loyal DFLers is wary that if his party puts too much focus on Minneapolis while under the leadership of two of the city's legislators, it could risk fracturing the delicate relationship between urban and rural DFLers.
“The important thing is just to make sure that we don't make this a session about urban issues because then we lose the bigger things that we have in common,” Rosenberg said.
Minneapolis DFLers said they're well aware of concerns that having urban leaders for both the House and the Senate makes the DFL look like the “party of Minneapolis” and that it could lead to a session favoring the state's largest city. But they dismiss those concerns, saying too much has been made of the fact that Minneapolis legislators will be leading the Legislature.
“The House and the Senate didn't get together and say, ‘We're going to make both people from Minneapolis leaders.' [The House] made their decision, [the Senate] made our decision. And both bodies made it based on who we thought was the best person to lead us,” Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-58) said.
Democrats in the House chose Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A), who represents part of Downtown and a number of neighborhoods in Southwest, to serve as speaker. Kelliher's leadership of the House will be paired with the leadership of Sen. Larry Pogemiller (DFL-59) in the Senate. The district Pogemiller represents includes Nicollet Island and the East Bank.
Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) said he's confident Kelliher and Pogemiller will be strong leaders for the party and will prove to critics that they're dedicated to serving the interests of the entire state.
“Because much has been made of them being from Minneapolis, I think there will be a real conscious effort to point to the fact that we are one Minnesota,” said Dibble, who is on the Senate organizing committee. He said there's a regional balance in the legislators chosen to lead each committee.
Joel Bergstrom, the DFL chair for Senate District 60, also pointed out that the city legislators leading the Legislature have to maintain an agenda moderate enough so that Democrats from suburban and rural areas who won by small margins can go back to their constituents in two or four years and talk about issues that resonate with voters there. DFL leaders also still have to work with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who narrowly won re-election, he said.
But Rep. Steve Sviggum (R-28B), the current House speaker, isn't buying into the DFL's assurances. Sviggum said he thinks suburban and rural issues will get less attention under the new leadership structure.
“Certainly, they will need to do some things to represent the entire areas of Minnesota and other members of their caucus,” he said. “But the real pendulum has swung in favor of the urban interests.”
Sviggum said he's concerned formulas used to provide funding for things like local government aid, public schools and county social service aid could be tweaked to benefit Minneapolis or Hennepin County more than other areas of the state. He also said DFLers will need to raise taxes to pay for many of the programs they campaigned on, a move he said he would fight. To add to his list of concerns, Sviggum said he's fairly certain social issues such as a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage “aren't going to get any time of day” under the DFL-controlled Legislature.
But DFL legislators - especially those in the House, which the GOP has controlled for eight years - argue that several of their key issues haven't gotten very far in recent years, and they're eager to put some of that legislation back on the table.
“I have a set of pent-up demands on bills that I could not even get hearings on,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-59B). “But I'm sure other members of my caucus have the same thing.”
The first thing Kahn plans to introduce is a bill that would prevent a government shutdown if the Legislature doesn't meet its constitutional deadline. She also wants to push for a less restrictive policy for stem-cell research in Minnesota.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) said the DFL leadership's renewed emphasis on issues such as education, health care and property-tax reductions means he'll be bringing back bills he introduced in previous years - such as one to reduce classroom sizes - that didn't receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled House.
“All of these issues that we've been prioritizing and talking about for three and a half years will now get the attention and discussion they deserve,” Hornstein said.
Minneapolis City Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), who chairs the council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said she thinks the change in leadership at the Legislature will translate into a better understanding of the needs of municipalities and the unique needs of Minneapolis. Hodges said having the leaders of the House and the Senate from Minneapolis could mean the city will have a little less work to do when it brings its priorities to the Capitol.
“The advantage we have is each of them understands the needs of not only urban Minnesota, but Minneapolis in particular. There's less explaining that we will have to do,” Hodges said.
Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-62A) said what matters isn't who is leading the Legislature but what its members are able to accomplish in the upcoming session.
“I think what Minnesotans showed they want to see through the last election is that it's less about wanting to lurch to the left or veer to the right as it is about trying to get down on the ground and solve problems,” Davnie said.
Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 436-4373.