ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Minnesota Lawmakers returned to the State Capitol Tuesday for the start of the 2016 legislative session, kicking off the first day with contentious debate that could be a sign of things to come.
Every member of the House and Senate are up for election this year, and the physical conditions at a Capitol under construction are already having an impact.
State lawmakers picked up right where they left off last year, signalling a divisive election year session.
Hundreds of construction workers aren’t slowing down as lawmakers returned — the building chaos meant unusually tight quarters, and the opening prayer included a nod to frayed nerves.
Only 49 visitors were allowed to watch the House, by ticket only, and the first debate of 2016 was over why they were meeting in a construction zone.
“Your decision to put a ‘do not enter’ sign on the Capitol when you made the choice to meet in this building instead of a cheaper alternative” DFL Minority leader Rep. Paul Thissen said.
“Frankly, this argument is baffling to me,” Republican Majority Leader Rep. Joyce Peppin responded. “I cannot believe that you are trying to prevent members of the public from having access to the capitol.”
The Minnesota Senate met in temporary Chambers near the Capitol in the shiny new Minnesota Senate Building that Republicans condemned as too “lavish.”
Meanwhile, the powerful House Speaker Kurt Daudt defended himself against allegations that lobbyists and lawyers helped him out of a financial jam. Bill collectors took him to court for thousands of dollars in unpaid credit card bills.
“I was able to pay off those debts, and I was able to recover from this, and many Minnesotans are hurting and haven’t had the opportunity to recover from the recession yet,” he said at a press conference. “I think it really makes me fully aware of the struggles Minnesotans have.”
One issue lawmakers had hoped to solve, but didn’t, was a bill extending unemployment benefits to suffering steelworkers on the Iron Range. Furious Democrats accused Republicans of adding a “poison pill,” linking the legislation to a major business tax cut.