2022 legislative session: Piles of cash, bipartisan call for crime reduction … what’s not to like?

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2022 legislative session: Piles of cash, bipartisan call for crime reduction … what’s not to like?
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Yes, politics is polarizing these days. And yes, it’s an election year, and plenty of politicians will be turning up the volume on polarizing messages.

But, as the Legislature prepares to convene Monday, there are reasons the reality of lawmaking in Minnesota is mellower than the rhetoric.

State coffers are flush with cash, there’s overlap in some of the priorities of Democrats and Republicans — even with reducing crime and cutting taxes — and even if they can’t agree on anything, there’s no risk of a state government shutdown.

As the year progresses and the political messages flood your mailbox, inbox and social media feeds, here some fundamentals to keep things in perspective, based on public statements and interviews with key lawmakers and other players at the Capitol.

NEITHER PARTY HAS CONTROL

The House is controlled by members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, while the Senate is in the hands of Republicans. Gov. Tim Walz, who has the power of the veto, is a Democrat.

House staff test the audio and video systems to make sure everything is ready for the new legislative session, in the Minnesota House chambers at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. The new legislative session will begin Monday, Jan. 31, at noon. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Minnesota’s current divided government — the only one in the nation — practically ensures that anyone who wants major controversial legislation will be disappointed.

That also means that conservatives need not fear that the most progressive wing of the DFL will run the table with their agenda; Senate Republicans would stop it. And liberals need not fear that the farthest-right wing of the GOP will succeed with their agenda; the House would stop it.

To be clear, there will likely be proposals that will stir passionate debate. Hot-button issues, such as how race is taught — or not taught — could rear their heads, but impactful legislation on such topics is highly unlikely.

BOTH PARTIES WANT MORE COPS

At times, it might sound like Republicans and Democrats speak different languages when it comes to public safety. But in fact, leaders of both parties have atop their priorities adding more men and women with badges and guns to blunt the national increase in crime that’s atop many constituents’ minds.

The Republican message is simple.

“More cops means less crime,” Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, has stated plainly multiple times in recent days.

The Democrats’ message is more nuanced — softened so as not to offend parts of their base that reject a traditional tough-on-crime approach as a failed philosophy of a bygone era. Still, it’s there.

“We all know crime is less likely to occur in the immediate vicinity of law enforcement,” reads a fact sheet on the House DFL public safety plan. That plan proposes spending $100 million on a range of programs, including $44 million in grants that could be used by local law enforcement to hire beat cops or investigators — or other measures.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean more bodies on the street, but it might,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House public safety committee.

By comparison, the Senate Republican plan, while still being formed, has no money to actually pay police officers, said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate public safety committee. Instead, Limmer’s proposal focuses on recruiting new cops and retaining existing ones — an idea Mariani said he supports as well.

At the core of these overlaps: Both Republicans and Democrats agree that not only are there staffing shortages in the ranks of peace officers, they also agree that money isn’t the primary reason — or solution. Police departments, including those of St. Paul and Minneapolis, have budgeted for more officers than they’ve been able to hire, the result of high retirement rates and the length of time — and funds — it takes to train recruits.

There are other elements of each party’s plan that seem unlikely to garner support from the other side, but in a truly bipartisan sign of crime-reduction proposals, Reps. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, and Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, have jointly proposed a pair of bills aimed to bolster vehicle theft and carjacking investigations by leveraging a team of 17 fraud investigators from the state’s Department of Commerce. The bill has bipartisan prospects in the Senate as well.

The team of Edelson, a former social worker, and Novotny, a retired police officer, shows that there’s agreement across the aisle on the need to reduce and solve crimes, Edelson said in an interview.

“Right now, there’s a lot of finger pointing on what’s not working,” she said. “And we can do that, but we should also focus on what we agree on. We know that departments are overwhelmed and understaffed, and a lot of us are looking for solutions. We just might not be the loudest voices at the Capitol.”

EVERYONE WANTS TAX CUTS

Both Republicans and Democrats say they know that the rising cost of just about everything is forcing everyone to pay more and get less. And there seems to be widespread agreement that some form of tax relief is in order.

No proposals are yet detailed enough to attach hard dollar figures, but all sides seem to agree that poor and working and middle-class folks deserve a break. The difference is that Republicans want tax relief for, in the words of Miller, “all working Minnesotans,” while Democrats don’t seem keen on lowering taxes for the highest-paid Minnesotans.

Where would the cutoff be for the DFL? In his proposal, Walz has suggested sending $350 rebate checks for everyone who earns $164,400 or less.

Where would all this money come from?

THE STATE IS FLUSH WITH CASH

Following a trend seen across numerous states, Minnesota’s coffers are flush with cash, the result of the strange pandemic economy, where some sectors have been hurt while others have burgeoned.

Several billion dollars are in the state’s accounts, and in December, state forecasters projected the total surplus would balloon to a record $7.7 billion. That projection will be updated in February or March, and many lawmakers suspect it will be even larger.

The traditional partisan dynamics of what to do with most of that money will play out: Democrats want to spend it on programs, while Republicans want to return it to taxpayers via tax cuts.

It’s entirely possible neither side will budget enough to reach agreement. If that happens, the consequences to Minnesota are … hardly drastic. The state’s roughly $52 billion, two-year budget was approved last year, so there’s no risk of a government shutdown. Most of the extra money would simply sit there.

How all this will play out during an election year remains to be seen. The seat of every lawmaker, as well as the governor’s office, are among those that will be on the ballot in November. Two senior Republican senators — Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake and Michelle Benson of Ham Lake — are among a field seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Walz.

It will be up to Walz, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Miller, the Senate’s top Republican, to ultimately broker deals when lawmakers are at loggerheads. This will be Miller’s first time as the leading Republican voice in the room; he was elected to lead the Senate GOP Caucus when Gazelka stepped down from the post after announcing his gubernatorial bid.

NEITHER PARTY CAN GERRYMANDER

Speaking of elections, technically, one of the first tasks of the Legislature will be to approve new political boundaries for House and Senate districts, as well as the state’s eight congressional districts. The deadline is Feb. 15.

Expect national political media to focus on one-party states where questionable maps of odd shapes draw controversy, lawsuits and allegations of gerrymandering — manipulating political boundaries to give one party or the other an unnatural edge.

Minnesota lawmakers will probably fail to reach agreement, leaders have already all but conceded. That will mean the once-a-decade task, which follows each census, will fall to the courts.

1643515113 249 2022 Legislative Session Piles Of Cash Bipartisan Call For Crime
Dona Yu works near the ceiling of the second floor of the state Capitol in St. Paul, repairing and restoring the ceiling friezes, on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. The new legislative session will begin Monday, Jan. 31, at noon. Yu works for John Canning & Co. of Cheshire, Conn., experts in historical restoration and conservation. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
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