Minnesota Democrats Make Leadership Choices

Updated: 11/09/2012 7:58 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Albert

The newly selected leaders of the DFL majorities in the Minnesota Legislature pledged Thursday a new direction and a new tone, while setting priorities that included balancing the budget, creating a plan to pay back a $2 billion debt to schools, and establishing a state health care exchange.

"Now the hard work begins," DFL Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters minutes after he addressed the newly enlarged DFL Senate caucus at the St. Paul Hotel.

Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) was elected Senate Majority Leader after a stint as Minority Leader in the current Republican-controlled Legislature.

"This state has been mismanaged for a number of years," Bakk declared as about a dozen senators stood off to the side listening, including newly elected Senate President Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul).

Incoming Assistant Majority Leader Katie Sieben (DFL-Newport) stood next to Bakk and seemed to extend an olive branch to her colleagues across the aisle.

"People want us to get things done," Sieben said. "They don't want partisan, divisive bickering."

In his remarks, Gov. Dayton appeared to set a line in the sand over a looming $2 billion budget shortfall, ruling out future borrowing from the state's schools like the maneuver in 2011 that shifted $2 billion away from districts to balance the budget - without a promise of when it would be repaid.

"We're not going to make it worse. No more gimmicks and no more shifts, as far as I'm concerned," the governor said.

Sen. Bakk echoed the governor's comments and indicated a commitment to repaying the money to school districts.

"I think the best the schools can hope for is getting a payment plan in statute," Sen. Bakk said.

Bakk, Dayton, and Speaker of the House-designate Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) all separately expressed strong support for establishing a state health care exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act, which would act as an online marketplace for insurance. Some Republicans have opposed the plan, citing its costs and philosophical differences.

"This is, I think, the last opportunity for this country to make the present system work," said Gov. Dayton.

Shortly before 10pm Thursday, House DFLers emerged from their caucus meeting to announce Thissen had been elected the next Speaker, with Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul) as Majority Leader.

"We did very much hear the message on the campaign trail," Thissen told reporters after his election, "that what Minnesotans really want is a government that's going to work, that's going to focus on the basics, that's going to get those basics right. We're very much committed to doing that."

Senate Republicans are due to pick their leadership Friday; House Republicans are scheduled to do so on Saturday.