ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota voters’ choices in Tuesday’s election will give the state another Democratic governor and a Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans, the latest experiment with divided government in Minnesota that has produced mixed — and sometimes few — results.
Amid fears of a creeping economic recession, Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz, a new Democratic House majority and a Republican Senate will set a two-year budget likely to swell above $46 billion. And they’ll tackle topics that have entrenched both parties at the Capitol like public health care financing and gun law restrictions.
Leaders from both parties expressed confidence they could bridge their partisan divides after Walz is sworn in Jan. 7 and the Legislature returns Jan. 8. But the state’s highest-ranking Republican warned both parties to constrain their agendas inside the nation’s only Legislature where power is split between parties.
“If it’s too far out of bounds … it’s just not going to get there,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. “That’s just the nature of divided government. Minnesotans seem to like that.”
The results of split power in St. Paul haven’t always been pretty. Lawmakers needed overtime to finish a budget in 2015, when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats had the Senate. Earlier this year, outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton struck down much of the Legislature’s work, vetoing a package of spending increases and tax tweaks that would have squared Minnesota’s tax code with the federal government.
Some philosophical divides could slow things down in 2019.
Thirty-six hours after a commanding win over Republican Jeff Johnson, Walz opened his transition office at the state Capitol and renewed his commitment to two campaign pledges: Raising the gas tax to fund infrastructure improvements and expanding the low-income health care program MinnesotaCare with a public option. Both will figure heavily in budget discussions.
Walz declined to put a firm number on how much he’d propose to raise the per-gallon gas tax. It would be the first such increase since 2008, following Republicans’ efforts in recent years to fund transportation repairs by shifting existing tax revenues and tapping into a budget surplus.
“The responsibility, as I ran on, you can’t just say you’re not going to do anything in terms of revenue and budgets and you’re magically going to get roads, bridges and transit,” Walz said.
Republicans kept a one-seat majority in the Senate with a special election win in a conservative district. As Republicans’ only lever of power, it puts pressure on Gazelka to protect the party’s interests.
He and outgoing House Speaker Kurt Daudt — now relegated to the minority — shut down a gas tax increase as unreasonable, given another expected budget surplus next year. And Gazelka dismissed the idea of a public health care option as an unworkable government takeover.
But there are other, broader budget problems to solve. With a 2 percent tax on health care providers set to expire by 2020, Walz and lawmakers need to work out how to fund an array of public health care programs like MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance, the state’s name for Medicaid.
Walz said he’ll push to renew that tax before it expires, but Republicans have resisted extending the tax they worked hard to repeal in 2011.
“That is going to be a big debate,” Gazelka said. “I don’t have the answers yet.”
A Democratic sweep through the suburbs could revive debate over new gun law restrictions. Democratic candidates flipped 18 districts to win back control of the House, with all but two coming in suburban districts that may support universal background checks and so-called “red flag” laws, which give families and police a legal path to temporarily remove guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others.
“Right now, they care an awful lot about gun violence prevention,” incoming House Speaker Melissa Hortman said of suburban voters.
Fresh off the latest mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California that left 12 dead, Walz vowed to push for those measures in 2019. Similar legislation has been stymied in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but Gazelka said “there has been some openness.”
Walz said Tuesday’s election should put all powerbrokers at the Capitol on notice.
“If you missed the message of this election, it’s that people want government to function. They want it to deal with things that affect their daily lives,” Walz said. “And they’re pretty much done with the drama.”
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