House Republican Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said, "No one likes to be the turd in the punch bowl." But after a fair amount of pleasant banter, he decided to draw first blood.
"The last [legislative session] was an abysmal failure," Daudt said during a legislative preview forum in Rochester featuring leaders from both parties.
"We had over a billion dollar surplus, and somehow we ended up raising taxes two billion dollars in a biennium. All that happened behind closed doors, he added"
Daudt was expressing residual frustration at the manner in which last year's legislative session ended, when minority leaders from both chambers, including Daudt, were shut out of the final talks.
Not everyone on the stage shared his assessment. DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said her proudest moment in the last session was preserving health care for more than a million Minnesotans. That would not have been possible without preserving the state's provider tax, which was set to sunset. Without it, the state would not have been able to provide the same level of care to the elderly and disabled.
The state is projecting a $1.3 billion surplus, and legislators discussed their priorities for the session, including a middle class tax cut, reducing prescription drugs, and maintaining the state's roads and bridges.
The talk was moderated by Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President Kathleen Harrington, who kept the tone light and cheery early on by giving each legislative leader a chance to talk about themselves as people before diving into the brass tacks of politics. In addition to Daudt and Hortman, GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk shared the stage.
In addition to passing a bonding bill, Gazelka said a top goal of his GOP caucus is cleaning up the state's beleaguered health and human services department.
"It's just one problem after another," Gazelka said. "I think the governor wants to wait a little bit longer. We don't want to wait any longer."
Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden, sitting in the audience, was asked by Harrington to weigh in. Kiscaden, who sits on a blue-ribbon commission charged with reforming the department, said that "transformational change" was needed at the department, but doing it right would take time. She appeared to appeal directly to Gazelka for that time.
"We haven't invested in the transformation," Kiscaden said. "Let's take our time to do this really well."
Gazelka noted that the problems plaguing the department are not new and go back as far the Pawlenty adminstration. But he seemed amenable to Kiscaden's approach.
"Normally, we change a bite at a time," Gazelka said. "Give me a bite or two that we can do this session. And we'll be partners."
Daudt said he wanted to roll back the provider tax that was passed during the last session.
Bakk said it might sound heretical coming from a Democrat, but he wanted to reduce or eliminate the state's estate tax. He said Minnesota is only one of 12 states that taxes people's estates after they die. And too often older Minnesotans leave the state to avoid the tax.
"The state loses a lot when they leave," he said. "They should make the decision on the weather, not on their taxes."
Legislators also stressed the urgency of doing something about the state's achievement gap between white and black students. Hortman noted that Minnesota used to be ranked No. 1 in educational achievement, which corresponded with a No. 1 ranking in educational investment at the time. Now the state is ranked in the low 20s in educational achievement, about the same as its ranking on spending.
"It does matter if you invest," she said.
Too often, Daudt argued, the state's teachers union stands in the way of educational reform. In other states, reform has been achieved because of a bipartisan consensus. That doesn't exist in Minnesota, he said.
"The teachers union is so powerful, they won't allow it to happen," Daudt said.