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Tough legislative session comes to a close

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Democrats had enough members to pass nearly anything they wanted, but this legislative session remained about as contentious as any other.

It was not necessarily a surprise to many Democrats, who say their party contains a variety of opinions and members from across the state. They can disagree as much with each other as Republicans.

The Democrats proved that even with one party in charge, putting together a state budget is not easy.

Minnesota lawmakers bumped up against their constitutionally set adjournment deadline to pass a $38 billion, two-year state budget and faced troubles and triumphs along the way.

One of the closest-watched issues was taxes.

Many plans were tossed around before lawmakers landed on a $2 billion increase coming from adding a fourth tier income tax bracket up 2 percentage points from the current top rate, increasing cigarette taxes and expanding some sales taxes to services such as warehousing.

Democrats said the bill was the way to pay for top priorities such as education funding.

But Republicans say it will do more harm than good.

"I think the people of the state of Minnesota will find out this is not just a tax on the rich, it's a tax on everybody," said Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.

The process was not smooth, and at one point a tax bill failed in the Senate before being revived and narrowly passing when a handful of Democrats switched to voting yes.

Same-sex marriage emerged early as a top issue for constituents after Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

It was unclear whether Democrats would have the votes to pass it, as many rural members opposed the measure. But in the last weeks of the session, the House and Senate approved the bill and Governor Mark Dayton drew a crowd of thousands to watch him sign it into law.

Lawmakers also passed a plan to set up the state's health insurance exchange program, now named MNsure, early in the session.

Democrats said this would be the "education session" and made investment in public schools, colleges and universities a priority. They gathered some Republican support for those plans, which included funds to freeze tuition in the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems.

Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor's office for the first time in two decades, a prospect both exciting and daunting to those lawmakers.

"We've certainly taken advantage of it," Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, said of Democratic control.

Republicans accused the party of overreach throughout the session, and some Democrats agreed.

"We did not learn the lesson of Republicans two years ago," said Representative Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette. "A lot of people went for as much as they could get."

It did not always work.

Democrats originally tried to make major changes to gun control policy, but that effort was curbed by Republicans and many rural Democrats.

Others said people will argue that Democrats did not use their control to its fullest.

"Some people will think we haven't gone far enough," said Representative Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar.

Even before the session began, concerns surfaced about rural representation; with three of the four top legislative leaders coming from the Twin Cities.

Democrats said they consciously picked many committee chairmen from rural areas to help balance control, but it did not allay worries from greater Minnesota members, especially Republicans.

"I raised my concerns on Day 1," said Representative Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and it remained an issue.

"There's just been a tension" between the parties, he said.

Republicans said they do not feel they were included in key discussions, such as on the budget.

"I just didn't see them reaching out to us," Representative Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said of Democrats. "I'm disappointed with the lack of willingness to work together to solve problems."

Senator Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said while Republicans did not have much control over decisions, they could raise concerns.

"I think we pointed out a lot of counterarguments that wouldn't otherwise have been heard," he said.

McNamar said the work has been difficult.

"This is the hardest job I've ever had," he said.

McNamar was happy with the session overall, though he said it was tougher than he anticipated.

"I was not expecting it to be this intense, this hard," McNamar said.

A particularly difficult vote was on same-sex marriage, he said. He ultimately voted for the proposal Dayton signed this month.

The emotional toll was significant, he said.

"It seems like every bill I'm pulled on both sides," McNamar said.

McNamar said top priorities were met, including stabilizing Local Government Aid, lowering property taxes and funding education.

"I've accomplished everything I wanted to get done," he said.

Westrom said the budget did not turn out well for rural Minnesota or the state as a whole.

Westrom said the cigarette tax increase alone will be a significant incentive for consumers to travel across the state border.

"I didn't think they'd want to overreach this far," Westrom said of Democrats.

Ingebrigtsen said border cities especially will suffer under the Democrats' plan because businesses and shoppers likely will head across state lines.

"It's been a real big overreach," Ingebrigtsen said of Democrats' work this session.

"Elections have consequences," he said.

Ingebrigtsen said he thinks Republicans will take back the House in the next election after the way this session played out.

Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.