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Legislature convenes for session of tough choices

ST. PAUL (AP) -- Promises of bipartisanship showed strain almost immediately as the Legislature opened its 2005 session Tuesday, particularly in the House where DFL gains in the November elections sliced into the Republic majority.

The House DFLers flexed their new muscle, in the form of 13 new members, and tried to overturn several Republican rules they said left them underrepresented in important decisions and lacking the staff to serve their constituents.

Although the Senate's opening was more conciliatory, with the two caucus leaders vowing to work more closely and avoid partisan rancor, the usually ceremonial first day was more contentious than many legislators anticipated.

Since DFLers closed the House Republican majority to 68-66, there had been endless talk of civility and collaboration. They'll probably need it to overcome a projected $700 million deficit, deal with a backlog of road needs and handle a slew of divisive social issues.

"They turned it into a partisan political show the first day, I was extremely disappointed in that," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon. "I'll rise higher than that. The House will rise higher than that. We'll overcome the rancor of the first day, which was completely inappropriate."

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House Democratic leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul argued that the closeness of the House wasn't fairly reflected in committee assignments.

For example, the powerful Ways and Means panel, which reviews all spending bills, carries a 22-15 Republican advantage. And he said Republicans allotted themselves 20 more staff members than Democrats for research, media relations and constituent outreach.

"The message from voters was to play fair and to get along, and the first thing Republicans did was take the resources for themselves and expose the Democrats on committees," Entenza said. "That's not playing fair."

Sviggum got the number of votes he needed to be re-elected speaker for the fourth time, winning over Entenza 67-64. Three members abstained from voting: Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township; Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar; and Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie. Sviggum has been speaker since 1999.

House members, senators and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty all entered 2005 expressing high hopes of cooperation following last year's collapse that left every major bill unpassed.

The Senate, which wasn't on the fall ballot, returned with a 35-31 split favoring Democrats. There is one independent.

The Senate maintained an amiable atmosphere Tuesday. It was a long way from last year, when DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day barely spoke to each other and used harsh tones when they did.

"Senator Day -- we're going to get along," Johnson, of Willmar, said in a floor speech.

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He said voters in the last election showed that they want "a better end product."

Day, known for his sharp tongue and sometimes fiery temper, promised to rein it in this session.

"You know me -- I get excited about things," said Day, of Owatonna. "I'm going to try as hard as I can to be a kinder, gentler minority leader."

Johnson said some early votes in the Senate would give members from both parties a chance to work together. The Senate began confirmation hearings on three of Pawlenty's Cabinet nominees, and Johnson said full Senate votes would come Monday.

He said the Senate Capital Investment Committee would begin hearings soon on a bonding bill that would fund construction projects around the state. Bonding legislation was a major casualty of last session's stalemate.

"Will we perform miracles? No," Johnson said. "But when the day comes that we adjourn, hopefully 67 of us -- the Minnesota Senate -- will be proud of what we've done."

Back in the House, a string of 68-66 votes resulted as Democrats unsuccessfully tried to leverage more staff and more spots on committees. Debate made the session last almost 2 1/2 hours.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-Falcon Heights, said it didn't bode well.

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"The Republican majority is using its winner-take-all power to rule the House with an iron fist," she said. "It threatens to divide us before we even being to get our work done."

Her fears weren't universally shared, though.

Freshman Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, alternated her finger over the "yes" and "no" buttons during one key vote before siding with her party. The rules votes were on logistical matters and didn't dampen her drive to compromise, she said.

"There's lots more opportunities to work together," Dittrich said. "The big issues are still to be decided and still to be worked on."

The session must end by May 23.

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