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Legislature convenes for session of tough choices
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Republican freshman Pat Garofalo of Farmington with his two children, Abby and Alex, shared first-day duties at the Capitol. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The 84th Minnesota Legislature convened Tuesday with pledges of bipartisanship, followed in the House by a slew of party-line votes. Legislators from both parties say Minnesotans expect them to work together and accomplish something this session. At the same time, the Legislature is the most evenly divided it's been in at least half a century, with 101 Democrats, 99 Republicans and one independent.

St. Paul, Minn. — Many legislators have predicted that much of the drama this session will take place in the narrowly-divided Minnesota House, where 68 Republicans hold a narrow edge over the 66 Democrats. And the opening day didn't disappoint.

Republican Steve Sviggum got just the votes he needed to be reelected Speaker over DFL leader Matt Entenza. The vote was 67-64, with one Republican and two Democrats abstaining from voting. Following the vote, Sviggum promised to involve DFLers in legislation. "Understand that that outreach, understand that that ownership also brings a responsibility from your standpoint. It's no longer just throwing bombs. You're part of the process, you're part of the ownership," Sviggum said.

Minority Leader Entenza also pledged to compromise with Republicans. He then asked the Republican majority to give House Democrats more committee assignments and more staff to reflect their near-majority status. Both proposals failed. Entenza said the largely party-line votes signaled old-school politics.

"It's unfortunate that the tone the first day is that Republicans said we're going to create supermajorities for ourselves on committees, we're going to hog the staff," said Entenza. "I think people told us at the voting booth they want us to play fair, don't throw sand at one another in the sandbox."

While committee assignments and staff allocation may not seem significant to those outside the Capitol, lawmakers say they have a major impact on the bills that make it through the Legislature. Rep. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada, is one of 26 new House members. She says she was shocked to see that the House Ways and Means Committee has 22 Republicans and 15 Democrats.

Everyone benefits by getting their work done. And if we don't get our work done, they're going to throw us all out next time!
- Rep. Pat Garafalo, R-Farmington

"That's the money-spending committee, and so most of that decision will be made by Republicans, even though there's a 68-66 split," she said.

Scalze expects to see many party-line votes in the next few months. Still, she's optimistic that lawmakers will be able to agree on a capital investment bill, balance the budget and tackle rising health care costs.

The 2005 session has a full agenda -- lawmakers must pass a two-year budget for the biennium that begins in July, and erase a projected $700 million deficit. Another optimistic House freshman, Republican Pat Garofalo of Farmington, says lawmakers have plenty of incentives for a productive session.

"Everyone benefits by getting their work done," Garafalo said. "And if we don't get our work done, they're going to throw us all out next time!"

Garofalo says he's not surprised by the party-line votes on the first day. He says he wasn't ready to cross party lines when he barely knew what he was voting on, but says he's willing to consider DFL proposals down the road.

In the Senate, the first day was also marked by calls for bipartisanship. DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar pledged civility and respect.

"I've encouraged my colleagues to reach across the aisle. The committee chairs, the chief authors -- to meet with you, to talk with you, to bring forth committee bills, pass them through the process up here on the floor -- for dialogue and debate and ultimately, votes," Johnson said.

Senate Democrats extended an olive branch by immediately beginning confirmation hearings for members of Gov. Pawlenty's cabinet.

Last session, Senate DFLers fired Pawlenty's education commissioner in the final hours of the session. This time, Senate committees voted to confirm Pawlenty's public safety and administration commissioners and a Met Council appointee.

Next, the Senate plans to take up the confirmation of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, a former legislator who appears likely to be easily confirmed.