LEGISLATURE '15: GOP's return to the table sets up a session of small change

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ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, NOV. 4, 2015 - FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2014, file photo, protective wrap and scaffolding hide the Minnesota Capitol as a massive renovation continues in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday’s start to a new legislative session brings a change in party power with Republicans taking command of the House. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JAN. 4, 2015 - FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2014, file photo, incoming Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, center, leaves a news conference of newly elected Minnesota House Republicans in St. Paul, Minn. Tuesday’s start to a new legislative session brings a change in party power with Republicans taking command of the House. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The makeover at the Minnesota Capitol extends beyond the construction consuming the place. Tuesday's start to a new legislative session brings a change in party power, too, with Republicans taking command of the House after two years on the outside of state government.

Democrats still run the Senate and hold the governor's office by virtue of Mark Dayton's re-election, but the GOP's place at the bargaining table is a big shift.

"This is going to be a bigger adjustment for the Democrats," said incoming House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a third-term Republican. "Now they don't get everything they want. They have to work with us. We'll be able to moderate their policies."

The altered political configuration brings the usual promises of cooperation that will be quickly tested. In all likelihood, Minnesotans are in for a session of small change rather than bold strokes the next 19 weeks.

But there's plenty of work. Dayton and legislators will set a roughly $40 billion, two-year budget. They'll decide how to divvy up a $1 billion projected surplus. They'll consider a long-term plan for road-and-bridge needs. They'll weigh changes to the health insurance exchange known as MNsure. And they'll debate liquor-store hours, child-abuse investigation policies, teacher tenure and privacy laws amid today's technological renaissance.

Dayton, having waged his final campaign, could be the wild card if he chooses to cut against the political grain. Dayton admits feeling new freedom heading into his second term, but says no one should expect him to abandon his principles.

"Political capital is a precious commodity and it's one that should not be wasted by anybody," Dayton said. "I don't intend to change the basic ways I operate and attempts to come up with constructive resolutions."

Divided government is nothing new to Dayton or Minnesota. But the last taste in 2011-12 resulted in gridlock and a lengthy government shutdown. The difference this time is the state's budget situation, with a modest surplus rather than a deep deficit.

Dayton has ruled out seeking tax increases to pay for general government operations, although he is proposing tax hikes dedicated to transportation projects.

Democrats might attempt to increase program spending while Republicans say they'll be out to tighten government's belt. Odds are they'll end up in the middle with the next budget looking a lot like the last.

"Most likely it'll be a little bit steady as she goes," predicted Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville.

That would suit Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. He's spent the session run-up trying to manage constituent expectations.

"I'm getting emails already seeking increased spending on this this and this," Reinert said. "It's probably not going to happen. If we can hold the line on the budget from the last biennium, we're probably doing pretty well."

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