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Commentary: 'New' Minnesota Capitol, enlarged political divide

The Minnesota Capitol looks calm in this July 2017 photo, but under the dome the first year after it reopened following a major renovation was anything but calm. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—Oh, what a year 2017 was in Minnesota politics.

It all started innocently enough, with the state Capitol re-opening after years of a $310 million renovation. Politicians of all stripes walked into the building on Jan. 2, agreed that the Capitol was a magnificent building, now better than when it was built in 1905.

But even adding restrooms to the building—that originally had none for women—did not stop stuff from flowing freely, in a political sense, that is. As the building nears its first post-renovation anniversary, it appears politicians more than enough stink to make up for their time out of their facility.

Rewind to late May and what in most years would be the top political story: The Legislature is forced into overtime to pass the state's two-year budget.

That barely is remembered because of what happened just after the special session. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed most legislative funding in a failed attempt to leverage lawmakers to rethink their passage of five provisions, mostly dealing with taxes.

Dayton eventually won in court, but lost his attempt to negotiate as Republicans who control the Legislature found enough money to get through Feb. 20, when the 2018 Legislature begins. Republicans never planned to talk to Dayton about reworking any legislation.

The problem was that Dayton already had signed the bills containing what he did not like. He roundly was criticized for signing bills he wanted to rewrite. A fear around the Capitol is that the governor's veto of legislative funding, which could have closed the Legislature, will become a tool for future governors.

There could be an upside to the veto dispute. If lawmakers fear a governor will stop their money flow, maybe it will force executive and legislative branch leaders to enter into real negotiations before passing funding bills.

Since the 2011 government shutdown, caused by the inability of Democrat Dayton and the Republican-led Legislature to agree on a budget, Dayton's relations with Republicans has deteriorated.

Relations hit a low point this year, as Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, appeared to have lost all trust in each other. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, may have been the only glue holding things together.

(Mentioning Gazelka brings up another factor that in many years could have been the biggest political story of the year: Republicans taking control of both legislative chambers. Few even think about that now with all the other stuff swirling about.)

All of that state contention paled in comparison to the news that came late in the year. Instead of originating under the Capitol dome, this story began in the Middle East, the Minnesota State Fair and other venues. The story was, of course, the resignation of U.S. Sen. Al Franken under a different capitol dome.

As the #MeToo movement of women affected by sexual misconduct grew by the day, forcing out two state lawmakers as well as Franken.

A December story about Franken announcing he would resign was the most-read one on capitolchat.areavoices.com. A close second was topped by one of the most grabbing headlines, so to speak, that proclaimed "Franken hand 'tightly around my butt cheek.'"

The first woman to accuse Franken of sexual misconduct was a Los Angeles radio host, who said he forced a kiss on her during a Middle East USO tour rehearsal. She also released a photo showing him holding his hands over her chest.

Other women followed, including those who said he grabbed their buttocks at public events such as the fair while pictures were being taken of them.

Other than the photo, Franken denied the event happened or he said he remembered them differently than the eight women related them. But as most Democratic senators called for him to resign, he bowed to the political pressure.

Dayton named Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace Franken until Minnesotans can elect a senator next November.

State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, were the two state lawmakers who resigned after sexual misconduct accusations. Again, in a normal year they would have been the big news.

There were plenty of political stories in 2017 that were overshadowed by other events, including:

• The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case that could have overturned Minnesota's sex offender treatment program. Still, the Dayton administration said it will change the program to allow more offenders to be released.

• Minnesota farmers are installing buffers to reduce water pollution, but state figures show the lowest compliance is where there is the most need, along water next to row crops in southern and western parts of the state.

• State aid helped keep individual health insurance policy premiums in check. The state agency that sells the policies, MNsure, reported no significant problems, unlike previous years.

• Two men with Minnesota ties take over key roles in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

• The Legislature allows liquor stores to be open Sundays, a decision that follows years of failed efforts.

A Forum News Service reporter in St. Paul, Davis has covered Minnesota government and politics since 1998. Read his blog at capitolchat.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @CapitolChatter.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.