Legislature begins amid optimism
ST. PAUL - The smiles and "happy new year" salutations of Tuesday's Minnesota legislative session opening day soon will turn into serious faces and money talk as legislators begin grappling with a $4.85 billion deficit.
But legislators say the opening-day hugs will not turn into partisan stare-downs as has happened in the past.
About the only thing on legislators' minds as they began their 2009 session was the budget deficit, a record-large one coming six years after the solution to another deficit took many of the easy solutions.
On Tuesday, legislators professed to be optimistic, ready to turn a negative into a positive.
"It's an opportunity for us to try our best to put political agendas aside," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, who as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee will play a key budget-balancing role.
A lot of good will is needed to get the job done, Solberg added.
Even with get-along talk, there was veiled - and sometimes outright -skepticism among Democrats who control the Legislature about Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget plans, which they expect to rely heavily on budget cuts.
Other than a couple of minor partisan disputes, opening day went smoothly.
With the support of fellow Democrats, Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis was re-elected House speaker. The only Democrat not to vote for her was Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba of Long Prairie, who said she did not cast a vote because Kelliher supports abortion rights.
Kelliher talked of President Abraham Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago, and his ability to bring two sides of a conflict together, indicating that is her job in this year's budget dispute.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, and Kelliher hugged after the Minneapolis lawmaker was elected to lead the chamber.
The Legislature must adjourn by May 18, but many lawmakers say a special session - in the summer, and maybe extending into the fall - could be needed to finish their budget work.
Much of lawmakers' first for the first few weeks of the year will be the routine job of looking over existing programs to get ready for writing a two-year budget that begins July 1.
All 134 representatives were sworn in Tuesday since all stood for election two months ago. Twenty-two House members are newly elected.
Just a couple of new senators began work Tuesday. Senators serve four-year terms that expire in two years, but two seats were filled in special elections.
In both chambers, Democrats continue to hold overwhelming majorities.
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau convened the Senate shortly after noon.
Molnau, who senators last year removed from her second post as transportation commissioner, told the Senate the state faces many challenges.
"Our citizens remain resolved, our officials remain committed and I remain fully confident that together we will overcome all the challenges that lay ahead," Molnau said.
In both chambers, lawmakers conducted mostly ceremonial and routine work.
Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, was picked for a delegation to formally notify Pawlenty the House was in session.
"He asked if we had billions of dollars," Marquart said, adding that the governor turned serious and told the delegation he wants to work with legislators to solve the historic budget problem.
Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, said lawmakers and Pawlenty have to work together smoothly to fix the budget.
"It's going to be difficult," she said.
But the "different situation" the state finds itself in could encourage cooperation, Sailer added.
Jobs are a top concern Sailer has, but said increasing the state's energy economy could help that problem.
House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the parties actually have worked together well in the past few years and he said he saw nothing on opening day to change that. He said he planned to meet with other top lawmakers soon to begin working on the budget, which legislative leaders said has not been discussed much with Pawlenty.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said this is the worst economic year he has seen.
The gubernatorial hopeful was especially critical of Pawlenty. Rukavina said that if Republican-led tax cuts enacted when Pawlenty was House majority leader in the late 1990s and early 2000s had not passed, the budget would be in good shape today.
He also was critical of the GOP's tendency to raise fees and fines instead of taxes.
Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, nominated Kelliher to be speaker, saying that "times have changed so much since we left last spring." She said lawmakers never would have guessed the fiscal situation in which they find themselves as they returned to St. Paul.
Murphy said that lawmakers "need to work together like no two people have before" to solve the problem, and urged Kelliher to work with Republicans.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, in the House since 1996, said that 2009 is different than the past.
"Of all the sessions that I have been here, no one in this chamber knows how it is going to end," he said.
"It's going to start off probably cozy, but it is going to be a very strange session," Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said.
Westrom, who often criticizes Democratic proposals, said he expects to hear a lot about cooperation this year. However, he said, proposals such as his to send prisoners to the private Appleton prison need to be considered, not ignored like often has happened in the past.
He said up to $1 billion of the deficit should be easy to fill - "$5 billion is do-able."
The key to success, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said, is getting along.
"It has to be cooperative," he said.
John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, is one of 22 newly elected House members.
"This day has been a long time coming," he said.
Persell expressed more optimism than most in the Capitol, urging leaders to get to work on budget problems right away.
"No sense in waiting," he said. "They don't go away."
Newly elected Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said he was glad to finally be in the Capitol after a long campaign.
"It feels very satisfying, very good," he said.
Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, said he was humbled to be in the chamber after being elected two months ago.
"It gets me here in the heart," he said, holding his hand to his chest.
Despite the budget problems, Murdock said, he is glad to be in the House. "It's public service."
Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said the budget situation seems familiar to him. He took office in 2002, when the state faced another deficit.
"We had to say 'no' to a lot of folks," he said, adding that will happen again this year.
"I'm optimistic that from the most conservative to the most liberal, there is a recognition that we need to make some major cuts," Lanning said. "That bodes well for some cooperation."
State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.