Legislature begins amid optimismThe smiles and “Happy New Year” salutations of Tuesday’s Minnesota legislative session opening day soon will turn into serious faces and money talk as legislators begin grappling with a $4.85 billion deficit.
By: By Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau, Alexandria Echo Press
ST. PAUL – The smiles and “Happy New Year” salutations of Tuesday’s Minnesota legislative session opening day soon will turn into serious faces and money talk as legislators begin grappling with a $4.85 billion deficit.
But legislators say the opening-day hugs will not turn into partisan stare-downs as has happened in the past.
About the only thing on legislators’ minds as they began their 2009 session was the budget deficit, a record-large one coming six years after the solution to another deficit took many of the easy solutions.
On Tuesday, legislators professed to be optimistic, ready to turn a negative into a positive.
“It’s an opportunity for us to try our best to put political agendas aside,” said Representative Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee will play a key budget-balancing role.
A lot of good will is needed to get the job done, Solberg added.
Even with get-along talk, there was veiled – and sometimes outright – skepticism among Democrats who control the Legislature about Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty’s budget plans, which they expect to rely heavily on budget cuts.
Other than a couple of minor partisan disputes, opening day went smoothly.
With the support of fellow Democrats, Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis was re-elected House speaker.
The only Democrat not to vote for her was Representative Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie, who represents Douglas County. She said she did not cast a vote because Kelliher supports abortion rights.
Kelliher talked of President Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago, and his ability to bring two sides of a conflict together, indicating that is her job in this year’s budget dispute.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, and Kelliher hugged after the Minneapolis lawmaker was elected to lead the chamber.
Representative Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake said that the next few months will likely tread into uncharted territory.
“It’s going to start off probably cozy, but it is going to be a very strange session,” he said.
Westrom, who often criticizes Democratic proposals, said he expects to hear a lot about cooperation this year. However, he said, proposals such as his to send prisoners to the private Appleton prison need to be considered, not ignored like often has happened in the past.
He said up to $1 billion of the deficit should be easy to fill – “$5 billion is do-able.”
The Legislature must adjourn by May 18, but many lawmakers say a special session – in the summer, and maybe extending into the fall – could be needed to finish their budget work.
Much of lawmakers’ first few weeks of the year will be the routine job of looking over existing programs to get ready for writing a two-year budget that begins July 1.
All 134 representatives were sworn in Tuesday since all stood for election two months ago. Twenty-two House members are newly elected.
Just a couple of new senators began work Tuesday. Senators serve four-year terms that expire in two years, but two seats were filled in special elections.
In both chambers, Democrats continue to hold overwhelming majorities.
Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau convened the Senate shortly after noon.
Molnau, who senators last year removed from her second post as transportation commissioner, told the Senate the state faces many challenges.
“Our citizens remain resolved, our officials remain committed and I remain fully confident that together we will overcome all the challenges that lay ahead,” Molnau said.
In both chambers, lawmakers conducted mostly ceremonial and routine work.
Representative Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, was picked for a delegation to formally notify Pawlenty the House was in session.
“He asked if we had billions of dollars,” Marquart said, adding that the governor turned serious and told the delegation he wants to work with legislators to solve the historic budget problem.
Representative Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, in the House since 1996, said that 2009 is different than the past.
“Of all the sessions that I have been here, no one in this chamber knows how it is going to end,” he said.
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State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story. Both Davis and Wente work for Forum Communications Company, which owns the Echo Press.