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Power Play
By Laura McCallum
June 9, 2000
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Minnesota Republicans gathering in Rochester this weekend are not only concerned about keeping the U.S. Senate seat held by Rod Grams, but also in maintaining control of the Minnesota House. Republicans have a slim two-seat majority in the House, and are losing four members to retirement this year. They're planning to campaign on their push for tax cuts over the past two years, and hoping the healthy economy and another round of rebate checks will benefit incumbents. House Democrats are counting on a presidential year and dissent within the Republican ranks to help propel them back into the majority.

REPUBLICANS TOOK CONTROL of the state House for the first time in a decade two years ago, pledging to permanently cut income taxes. Party Executive Director Tony Sutton says they delivered on their promise. "There's a good contrast between what the Republicans in the Minnesota House did, which are work for tax cuts, and what the Democrats advocated, which was spending," he says.

But House Republicans didn't get as much as they wanted. During their first session in the majority, the Legislature enacted a $1.4 billion across-the-board income tax cut. This year, Republicans proposed $850 million in tax cuts, but an end-of-the-session deal whittled that down to $175 million. Conservative activists were disappointed, and according to David Strom, legislative director of the Taxpayers League, some may be less willing to pound the pavement and open their pocketbooks for Republican House members.

"Overall, only about half the surplus was returned, and 60 percent of the Republican caucus campaigned on returning 100 percent of that money," says Strom. "Now, as many excuses as they have about the governor betraying his promise, which he did, and Roger Moe wanting to spend every dime and more of the surplus, which he did, the bottom line is that some of these Republican members promised things that they did not deliver, and people are going to be upset."

"Given the strong economy, I fully expect it to be an incumbents' year, with few exceptions."

- Sarah Janacek
One top Republican donor was upset enough to threaten to stop contributing to the House Republican Caucus if it didn't bump House Speaker Steve Sviggum. Caucus staffers admit fundraising dropped after the legislative session. Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty says House Republicans have to remind party activists that they only control one-third of Minnesota's tri-partisan government, and they can't reverse 40 years of DFL legislative domination overnight.

"This is a cause, it's a movement, and if you look at the history of change in a democracy - absent a war or a crisis or a really strong executive leader - none of which we have in the state of Minnesota at the moment - change tends to come incrementally," Pawlenty says. "That's sometimes frustrating for folks who are really involved in the process and it's frustrating for us."

Pawlenty and other Republicans are also nervous about the history of presidential elections in Minnesota. The top of the ticket can trickle down to local races, and a Republican hasn't carried the state in 28 years. Although some polls indicate George W. Bush is running strong in Minnesota, DFL House Minority Leader Tom Pugh says his caucus is hungry to regain power.

"Democrats usually do better in presidential election years, with that turnout, we usually see a positive effect in the polls for Democrats," says Pugh. "We think this last session also has energized candidates."

Pugh says House DFLers will stress that they pushed for more spending on education and health care this session, and will campaign against Republicans who opposed a patients' bill of rights and privacy legislation. But Republican Sara Janacek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, says HMO regulation and privacy aren't issues that determine elections. "Given the strong economy, I fully expect it to be an incumbents' year, with few exceptions." she says.

There is one factor that could defy conventional wisdom this election: the slate of Independence Party candidates in a couple dozen legislative races. Most analysts don't think the party will gain any seats, but independent candidates could pull votes from either Republicans or Democrats, and neither party knows how to gauge their impact.