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Partisan fireworks start on Legislature's opening day

Three of the key Minnesota policymakers gathered before Tuesday's start of the 2012 legislative session to discuss what they expect to happen in the 2012 legislative session. From left are House Speaker Kurt Zellers, Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem. File photo by Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Lawmakers exchanged handshakes and hugs early Tuesday as they returned to the Capitol for the 2012 Minnesota legislative session, but contentious issues soon chipped away at the friendly start.

A Senate committee, controlled by the Republican majority, started the fireworks Tuesday afternoon by approving a nearly $2.7 million cut to the chamber's budget made necessary as part of the 2011 budget agreement.

More than $400,000 of those cuts were to DFL staff, which would require a layoff of 12 to 14 people. GOP staffers were spared from similar reductions.

"This is a dangerous precedent we're taking," Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

While the Legislature's must-do list for the session is short, this might be just the beginning of the controversy.

While House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he hoped lawmakers would focus on jobs and steer away from controversial constitutional amendments, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said Republicans are planning "a constitutional amendment or two."

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he is working on one that would make it optional for employees to join a union if they get hired at a union company. Thompson said he understands the issue will create an intense debate.

"I don't think that is a bad thing," he said. "We need to make this a better, more appealing business climate."

Gov. Mark Dayton said the state and U.S. constitutions "intentionally require the different branches of government to collaborate," but the Legislature has skipped over the executive branch all together to put issues on the ballot.

There also appears to be a debate coming over the size of a public works bill. Dayton proposed spending $775 million on such projects across the state. Republicans say that is too much. And lawmakers on both sides were critical that Dayton's bill dedicated just $20 million to flood relief.

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said he is less focused on the overall number and more on whether individual projects warrant state dollars. Kriesel said projects for roads, bridges and other infrastructure will take precedence over those "that might not be a necessity."

The Vikings stadium is a key issue this session as well.

"Let's face up to this," Dayton said. He pushed for a vote this session and said the team, stadium supporters and opponents all deserve a resolution. He has most recently advocated for using the Metrodome site.

"In this session, the only viable solution is the Metrodome site," he said.

One of the House advocates for a stadium bill agrees that the issue is important, but Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said he still is open-minded about Minneapolis or Arden Hills.

While there already were signs of stress, some lawmakers still had hopes the session could end quickly with little controversy.

Legislators also remain confident they can work with the governor on reforms to state government that will streamline operations.

"It's a fresh new session. There's lots of energy," Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said.

Dayton also encouraged collaboration.

"Let's take all the good ideas and put them together," he said.

Streamlining of the state's permitting process will also be a focus, said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. He hopes to take advantage of technology, allowing companies to pay online rather than using checks and put in place other reform aimed at making Minnesota's business climate more competitive.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said she would like to see transit funding for the Red Rock Corridor project.

Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said he wants to avoid situations like last year's shutdown.

"I have a bill that would ... forego future shutdowns," he said.