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Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature have watched with frustration over the past two months as Democrats pass one progressive bill after another without needing votes from across the aisle.
Abortion rights codified. Felon voting rights restored. Driver’s license eligibility expanded to include unauthorized immigrants. Republicans are grappling with the consequences of their 2022 defeats, dismayed by the growing list of bills passed by Democrats in control of the Legislature.
“I think they’re going to use this opportunity to pass every provision that they’ve ever dreamed of, and it appears that’s the track that they’re on,” said former House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “I’m not sure that they’re even negotiating with our caucus at all. Frankly, they don’t need to.”
The DFL sweep of the House, Senate and governor’s office has left Republican legislators outnumbered and on the defensive. Their diminished influence presents limited options: Collaborate with Democrats in hopes the majority will listen to their suggestions or label the DFL’s actions as extreme in hopes of positioning themselves for the 2024 election.
House and Senate Republicans have adopted both strategies this legislative session with varying results. By and large, Republicans from both chambers say, they feel that Democrats haven’t cared to listen to them.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, countered that Republicans did the same to Democrats when they were in control. “It’s not as much fun to be here when you’re in the minority,” she said.
But Hortman disputed the notion that Democrats aren’t working with Republicans, pointing to a number of bills that her chamber passed with overwhelming bipartisan support: Aligning the state’s tax code with the federal one, prohibiting discrimination based on hair texture and type and extending unemployment. benefits to laid-off miners.
“In basketball as in the Legislature, when it comes to crying foul, there’s some acting and there are some legitimate complaints,” Hortman said.
Republicans’ frustrations have spilled over at times, with some members shouting during floor debates and others airing their grievances in committee hearings.
Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, recently accused House Elections Committee Chair Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, of shutting down debate on an early voting bill.
“Haul me out of the committee if you’re not going to allow us to actually debate the darn bill!” Quam yelled at Freiberg during a committee hearing outburst, prompting the Democratic chair to repeatedly pound his gavel demanding order.
GOP-offered bill amendments are often rejected in committees and on the floor, said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. He said he feels Democrats have become less interested in bipartisanship now that they hold full control of the state government.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said Democrats have tweaked some bills based on Republicans’ feedback. “They weren’t amendments that we adopted. They were just changes that we agreed to make,” Frentz said.
Johnson criticized Democrats’ priorities as out of touch with most Minnesotans. On the campaign trail, Johnson said, voters asked lawmakers to prioritize public safety, education and tax relief. Democrats spent the first two months of the legislative session passing bills related to abortion, felon voting rights, driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants, carbon-free electricity and free school meals.
“This is all special interest-led legislation,” Johnson said. “Not once did I hear any of these issues that the Senate Democrats have passed off the floor as a top talking point for my constituents. And when I talk to other senators, it has not been for theirs as well.”
Senate Republicans have been narrowly outvoted on most bills with Democrats controlling the chamber by one seat, 34-33. But on Thursday, they defeated a DFL effort to pass a $1.5 billion borrowing bill that would have funded infrastructure projects across the state.
The public works package, known as a bonding bill, requires a three-fifths majority to pass. Republicans had threatened to tank the bill before Thursday’s vote unless tax cuts were agreed upon beforehand.
The House approved the same bonding bill earlier this month, with many GOP members voting for it.
“We have worked well with House GOP members and passed a great bonding bill off the Minnesota House floor with a large bipartisan vote,” Hortman said in a statement Thursday. “It’s regrettable the Senate GOP chose gridlock over progress for Minnesotans today.”
House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said her caucus is willing to make compromises on bills that benefit Minnesotans.
The bonding bill was an example, Demuth said, calling it “the right move right now.” She hopes Democrats will return the favor by eliminating the state’s tax on Social Security benefits, a change that some Democrats also support.
Demuth’s approach has been appreciated by Hortman, who described the new Republican House leader as one who sticks to her conservative principles while not throwing “sand in the gears at every turn.”
The two leaders meet weekly to discuss what’s happening at the Capitol, Demuth said. She’s asked Hortman to consider accepting more GOP bill amendments and to ensure her committee chairs give Republican members enough time to comment and ask questions during hearings.
A House Republican spokeswoman said Democrats have accepted about 25% of the amendments GOP members have offered during committee hearings.
“We’re speaking up for a large part of Minnesota that wants their voices heard,” Demuth said.
Republicans said they plan to hold Democrats accountable in next year’s election if their input is ignored. All state House seats will be on the ballot, giving the GOP a chance to end the DFL’s trifecta of power.
Johnson said he thinks Democrats are going to spend the state’s $17.5 billion budget surplus and then some, setting Minnesota up for future budget deficits.
“We’re going to have to come back and fix it,” he said.
Daudt, the former GOP House leader, said Democrats could doom their election prospects if they go back on some of their campaign promises. He noted that some Democrats who expressed openness to eliminating the state’s tax on Social Security benefits have backed away from the position since the election.
“When you tell somebody you’re going to do something and then you don’t do it, people remember that,” Daudt said. “Ultimately, the next election is the arbiter of how successful we were in our messaging.”
Republican lawmakers try to break through in DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature
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