Jan 24, 2012 at 1:59 pm
ST. PAUL, Minn. (KNSI) - Minnesota lawmakers returned to the state Capitol Tuesday for the start of the new legislative session, a session many hoped will prove far less turbulent than last year's acrimonious state budget-fueled faceoff that landed Minnesota in a 3-week-long government shutdown.
The state House and Senate were both set to convene at noon Tuesday, opening with sessions expected to be short and mostly ceremonial. Afterward, Gov. Mark Dayton was set to host lawmakers and their families at a reception in his office.
At the top of the agenda this session: several items guaranteed to spark debate, however, none were expected to be as contentious as last summer's stalemate over how to close a projected $5 billion state budget deficit.
The most high-profile issue remains the fate of a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. Earlier this month, Gov. Dayton called for final proposals from Minneapolis and Ramsey County officials on their best plans for a new Vikings home. However, Dayton last week blasted all of those plans, citing financial problems with each of the proposals that would make them unworkable. Dayton told Vikings owner Zygi Wilf Monday that constructing a new stadium on the footprint of the current Metrodome site in downtown Minneapolis is currently the only viable site that could pass the Legislature this year.
Without hard financing and public funding options worked out, St. Cloud Republican Rep. King Banaian said he's not optimistic a deal will be finalized any time soon.
"I think it'll very difficult to pass anything that has a high amount of state dollars in it...So far, I think Minneapolis is a little further along than Arden Hills, but of course, the Vikings still have a preference for the Arden Hills site." Banaian said. "We still don't have a site or a financing plan so I'm becoming skeptical that there is going to be a bill that will come to the floor for a vote."
Rep. Larry Hosch, D-St. Joseph, agreed.
"When you don't have your ducks in a row in that respect, it's really hard to have a legislative solution...first, there needs to be a plan. There needs to be a proposal and some specificity in what exactly we're going to be asked to vote on," Hosch said.
However, both lawmakers expressed hope that no signed stadium deal this session would not lead to the team severing its 50-plus year history in the state for greener pastures elsewhere.
"I don't think (the Vikings) really want to leave a very attractive media market and the long tradition they have here. I think they will stay," Banaian said.
With the spectre of re-election and redistricting facing all state lawmakers this year, Hosch said he expected those questions to also impact every other issue in play this session, including the stadium.
"It's just a tough year to get things done. I hope the Vikings look at those political realities, realize that they're an asset to the state and realize that they probably aren't going to be able to move immediately, anyway. You have another shot to see what reasonable package can come forward and realize (the Vikings) need to come with a more clear-cut plan next time too," Hosch said.
Also guaranteed to spark debate is Dayton's $775 million bonding proposal of state construction projects. After unveiling the ambitious plan of transportation and infrastructure projects last week, Dayton urged lawmakers to act quickly and approve a bonding package by the end of February, leaving plenty of time for planning that would get most projects underway as soon as the weather permits. Dayton said his proposal emphasized projects that are "shovel- or hammer-ready."
But leaders of House and Senate Republican majorities took issue with Dayton's attempt to tie the bonding bill, an even-year tradition at the Legislature, to job creation efforts, not to mention a price tag they say is unrealistic.
"Something in the area of $350 to $550 million would be my guess, which is a really broad range, but there's still a lot of debate about what works," Banaian said.
"We definitely should have an upper target where we don't exceed a certain amount of dollars, but I don't think we should create a floor, either. I think what we should do is listen to our communities, make a determination about what's needed and then fund what's needed...I think we should just sit back and listen and make the determination of what our needs are and that will determine what the size of the bill will be," Hosch said.
Locally, St. Cloud community leaders are paying particular attention to whether $10 million earmarked by Dayton in the bonding measure for completion of the River's Edge Convention Center will make its way to the final bill. While Rochester and Mankato have civic centers of their own in the bonding bill, Banaian said he hopes the unique nature of St. Cloud's situation will have secure the parking ramp and additional upgrade money.
"I think it's different than the others because there's been a major commitment already from the state. Not only did we get money from the state a few years ago for plans, but we also had money that cleared out some businesses. Given that you've made that large a commitment to us, does it make any sense to stop now?" Banaian said.
Both legislators said they were hopeful that the convergence of power shifts, high-stakes budget talks and ramped-up partisan politics that led to last year's heightened tensions will begin to loosen up this year and create more opportunity for cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.
"I'm hoping that some of the newness has sort of worn away. Last session, we had a legislature that had all-new majorities, all-new leadership. We had a new governor that had all new commissioners and was transitioning into the governship. So of that can be stressful, some of that is just getting to know personalities and how each other operate. I'm hoping this session goes better, but it's going to require a two-way street," Hosch said.