- Associated Press - Monday, February 19, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - All 201 legislators will soon return to the Minnesota Capitol, but three men and one woman will play an outsized role in setting the Legislature’s course.

The Legislature reconvenes Tuesday for a three-month session with plenty of work to do. Gov. Mark Dayton has set the tone entering session with his own priorities, but those will clash with Republicans who control the House and Senate. And it could be constrained by Democrats’ ongoing effort to force the Senate’s Republican president out of office and reclaim the majority.

Here’s a look at the major players who will shape this year’s session:

GOV. MARK DAYTON

The stakes are high for the two-term Democratic governor as he enters his final year in office.

Facing a Republican-controlled Legislature in a high-pressure election year, the odds are stacked against Dayton and his hopes of adding to his legislative legacy.

Dayton has already unveiled his proposal to tackle opioid abuse with a penny-a-pill tax on narcotic painkillers, and he’s likely to search for more ways to leave his mark on improving the state’s water quality. At the top of his list is leaving office with the state in good financial standing.

He’s promised to put months of bickering with GOP legislative leaders behind him by signing a bill that restores House and Senate operating budgets - funding he vetoed last year.

But Dayton also has several critical lapses in his administration to sort out, including fixing the state’s new system for license plates and restoring trust in elder care oversight, after reports of widespread abuse and neglect at senior living facilities.

SEN. MICHELLE FISCHBACH

From the moment she gavels in the start of the session, all eyes will be on longtime Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach. That’s because she’s also the state’s new lieutenant governor.

The president of the Senate is normally a low-key role, but the ongoing legal battle surrounding Fischbach’s dual roles will change come Tuesday. As the Senate’s president, Fischbach automatically ascended to become lieutenant governor after Dayton appointed the previous lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have sued Fischbach once to force her out of the Senate, though that lawsuit was dismissed. Another lawsuit could come within days.

The fight over Fischbach’s future is a proxy for the battle for control of the closely divided Senate. If she’s forced out, it would trigger a special election that would determine the state Senate majority, though GOP lawmakers scoff at the idea that Democrats could beat Fischbach in her heavily Republican district. Fischbach has said she would resign as lieutenant governor and run for the Senate seat again.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER PAUL GAZELKA

For the top Republican in the Senate, 2018 is all about guarding the majority.

Entering his second year as Senate Majority Leader after handling a tricky-one seat majority in 2017, the normally staid Gazelka has ratcheted up his rhetoric as Democrats seek to force him and fellow Republicans out of power.

“I’m going to fight like crazy to keep the majority,” he said last week.

Control of the Senate is key to achieving some top GOP priorities, such as reconfiguring the state’s tax code to square with the recently passed federal tax cuts while minimizing potential tax hikes that effort could trigger for some small businesses and taxpayers.

HOUSE SPEAKER KURT DAUDT

Will the Republican House Speaker keep his eyes on his chamber or a higher office?

That’s a major question for Daudt, who for months has been publicly considering a run for governor this year while entertaining calls to run for Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. Daudt has begun to signal he’ll stay in the Legislature, saying he’s not “actively pursuing” a run for governor or Congress.

It falls to Daudt to ensure that Republicans maintain control of the House for a third-straight term, in what could be a difficult election for Republicans nationwide. But Daudt is also thinking long-term, proposing a possible constitutional amendment that would dedicate sales taxes on automobile parts and rentals to an account set aside for transportation repairs. After the fallout from Smith’s appointment to the Senate, Daudt has also suggested an amendment to allow governors to pick their lieutenants.


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