ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Lawmakers returned to a changed Capitol on Tuesday, among them 21 new House Republicans who will help determine whether there’s deal-making or gridlock in a legislative session where the GOP has more power after watching Democrats control everything the last two years.
Nineteen newcomers along with two veterans who had a lapse in service make up almost one-third of the new 72-62 Republican majority in the House. Democrats still control the state Senate and governor’s office.
After taking their oaths of office and posing for family photos, many of the new representatives toed a careful line between promises to compromise with Democrats and to stand firm on conservative principles.
“I think a little bit of both,” said Rep. Roz Peterson, a real estate agent who defeated an incumbent Democrat to win her Lakeville-area seat. “When there was no stopgap measure, there were a lot of things passed where people didn’t necessarily feel that they were being well represented. In order to get anything done, you’re going to have to make some deals with the other side.”
Tuesday’s session start was mostly ceremonial. Senate Democrats and House Republicans will introduce their first bills Thursday, reflecting their session priorities.
Some newcomers had practical views of how much the new GOP majority could accomplish given Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s hold on that office and the solid Democratic Senate majority. That could hamstring more ambitious goals to roll back or erase prior tax increases.
“We’re not going to be able to make the changes that we want to make in a first term like this,” said Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault. Daniels beat a five-term DFL incumbent to join his younger sister, Rep. Marion O’Neill, in the House.
Newly elected House Speaker Kurt Daudt, Daniels and some freshman legislators spoke broadly of the need for compromise to avoid the stalemate that shut down Minnesota’s government in 2011. Both sides’ willingness to bargain may be tested in one of the biggest fights brewing this session: paying for a multibillion-dollar backlog of road, bridge and transit projects.
Dayton has called for a wholesale gas tax increase dedicated to roads and a metropolitan sales tax increase for transit improvements.
More than a dozen freshman GOP House members said Tuesday they’d resist any attempts to raise transportation taxes, insisting the state’s $40 billion-plus budget or a projected $1 billion surplus can be shifted to pay for road and highway repairs.
And some named a target ripe for cuts: mass transit.
Rep. Drew Christensen said many people in his district, which includes Burnsville and Savage, think too much state money has been spent on those projects in the Twin Cities - at the expense of suburban and rural infrastructure.
While Daudt insisted Tuesday that nothing is off the table, he echoed freshman members’ hesitance to raise additional taxes.
“We want to pay for the basics before we pay for the extras,” said Daudt, a Crown Republican.
House Democrats gave few hints about their willingness to help the GOP majority get major bills through.
“I think there will be unity on some issues and I think that there will be disagreements on other issues, like it always is,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Early business in the Legislature is expected to include time-sensitive bills to replenish a disaster-relief fund and adjust the tax code to meet federal changes.
But final decisions on the next two-year budget and the transportation plan will likely come closer to the adjournment deadline of May 18.
Besides divided government, legislators also have to deal with disarray at the Capitol itself. Crews are in the thick of a massive renovation, which has left cramped corridors and little public gathering space.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, advised colleagues they’ll need more patience to deal with the new challenges.
“When your temper starts to flare a little bit, please count to 10,” Bakk said. “It’s going to be stressful enough without us getting at each other’s throats.”
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.
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