ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Democrats newly in control of Minnesota’s political power began a delicate dance Wednesday around Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s long-held goal of raising income taxes on the top earners.
A day after overturning GOP legislative majorities to gain full control of the state government for the first time in 22 years, DFL Senate caucus leader Tom Bakk predicted “a very difficult conversation” ahead about spending cuts and taxes. The state is behind on school aid checks, and budget watchers project a $1.1 billion deficit starting in mid-2013.
Tuesday’s returns will test how far Democrats — including moderates who won swing districts where voters were more focused on jobs than taxes — are willing to go with Dayton’s income tax push. The DFL wins came after two bitter years in the minority, including last year’s state government shutdown when Dayton dropped the income tax proposal after losing a staredown with Republicans.
Appearing with Bakk and House DFL leader Paul Thissen at a Capitol news conference Wednesday, Dayton predicted Minnesota would see “progress” under Democratic rule.
“That’s our responsibility now. It’s a major responsibility,” the first-term governor said.
Pending a recount in a close Northfield race, Democrats captured 39 of the Senate’s 67 seats. In the House, the DFL won 73 of 134 seats. Republican Rep. Mary Franson edged Democrat Bob Cuniff by a single vote in a House race headed for a recount.
Democrats last controlled the Senate, House and governor’s office from 1987 to 1991, during the end of Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich’s tenure.
Outgoing Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers, smarting from his party’s losses, said the DFL won’t last long if leaders push moderate new members from suburban and rural swing districts into votes they can’t defend at home. He said Democrats benefited from a surge in voter turnout for President Barack Obama, extending Minnesota’s streak of choosing Democrats to 10 consecutive presidential elections.
“Those folks will have to stand before voters and explain their votes on things they said they weren’t going to do when they came down here,” Zellers said.
But Charlie Weaver, a former Republican lawmaker who now represents the state’s largest businesses as head of the Minnesota Business Partnership, faulted Republicans for pushing constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and require voters to show photo ID onto the ballot. Both amendments failed, and Weaver said GOP legislative leaders badly miscalculated the effect those would have on election results.
“It was an enormous mistake for the Republicans to put those ballot initiatives on the ballot,” he said, adding the proposals alienated women, young people and minorities.
Zellers said the a majority of the outgoing Legislature thought the ballot questions were “the right thing to do,” and blamed the losses on heavy spending by DFL allies who flooded some districts with negative mailers. Zellers said he won’t seek to lead the Republican House minority after winning his sixth term in a Maple Grove district.
House and Senate Democrats will meet separately Thursday to elect top leaders. Thissen is running to be the next House speaker, while Bakk is seeking the top Senate post. Senate Republicans will reorganize their caucus on Friday, while House Republicans will do the same on Saturday.
Dayton noted Wednesday that he has been pursuing the goal of making those who earn the most pay more income taxes since his campaign for governor. But he said he would wait for a new state budget forecast, due in early December, before revealing specifics.
Thissen said the governor’s tax proposal would serve as a starting point for debate, but he said he would expect lawmakers to propose significant changes.
Weaver said the business community and Democrats might find agreement on some tax changes, such as extending sales tax to clothing while lowering business taxes, but that Dayton’s proposal would hurt the state’s business climate.
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