State lawmakers getting along this session

Legislators came to St. Paul last month with two orders from their constituents: Get things done and get along. They say they are accomplishing the former because they are doing the latter. "I think it is a different tone," said Rep. Kathy Tingel...

Legislators came to St. Paul last month with two orders from their constituents: Get things done and get along.

They say they are accomplishing the former because they are doing the latter.

"I think it is a different tone," said Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, one of the leaders of a get-along movement.

Few would argue that a different tone was needed after a 2004 session that ended with little accomplished and a 2005 session that stretched an extra two months beyond the constitutional adjournment deadline, producing a partial state government shutdown. Both sessions were accentuated with bitter partisan arguments.

"We bottomed out," Tingelstad said. "It can't get to a point where we are any worse."


"I think we all were disappointed in last year and 2004," added Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton.

Tingelstad and others surveyed lawmakers and drew up recommendations for how to get along better. They showed legislators seldom talked to people of the other party and even less often got to know lawmakers in the other chamber.

Building relationships was one of the key ways they suggested to improve things.

It may have worked; there has been much less partisan bickering this year.

"We've moving in the right direction, but still have a ways to go," Tingelstad said.

One of the ideas she wants to make reality next year is the House and Senate scheduling mid-day breaks at the same time so members can talk to each other over lunch.

Simple ideas like forcing Democrats and Republicans to sit next to each other in meetings has led to conversations that never would have happened in the old-style system many committees used - Democrats sitting on one side of a big table and Republicans the other.

Sitting together is a good idea, but not a cure-all, warned Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Madison.


"Everybody knows that mingling doesn't always lead to friendships," Peterson said.

Rep. Karen Klinzing, R-Woodbury, agreed mingling can help. "The more people get to know each other, the better it is."

However, Klinzing said mingling with a purpose is better than mingling for mingling's sake. She recalled a meeting of legislative education leaders earlier this year in which she got to know senators and Democrats she had not worked with before.

A smoother session is not all about relationships. Since the state's two-year budget passed last year, there are fewer things to argue about this year.

"When you're not arguing over money, it gets to be easier," said Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

Rep. Dean Simpson, R-New York Mills, has a simple explanation for this year's peaceful session: "There is something called an election."

Legislative leaders are at least partially to blame for past problems, Klinzing said.

"The leadership has operated as if nothing has changed around here," she said. "Yet we had a whole new group of legislators."


Recent elections have led to a large turnover, especially in the House. Many freshmen lawmakers were elected in 2004 after voters told them they wanted people to work together.

The Legislature's top leaders -- House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar -- came to the Capitol together in 1979. Most committee chairman also have been around for years.

While freshmen lawmakers are among the get-along leaders, the two big leaders continue to offer partisan commentary this year.

Johnson, for instance, said Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed nearly 20 programs without providing funding. "It's called press release accounting."

Sviggum, on the other hand, said Senate Tax Chairman Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, wants to drag the legislative session into the summer, and blames him for lack of agreement on tax issues.

Johnson and Sviggum said they see a better attitude this year.

Even the potentially divisive issue of eminent domain -- the government taking private land -- was worked out smoothly this year, Johnson said. The major indication of cooperation there was that a House Republican and Senate Democrat worked on the proposal together.

Sviggum warned that problems could lie ahead. The tough decisions about how bills finally look will be made starting this week, he said, and that is when most arguments arise.


Klinzing said the Capitol rift is not all that the media makes it out to be.

"The worst of the worst seems to get played in the media," she said.

Some disputes are to be expected, she said, because "that is the whole point of democracy."

The majority of legislators get along, Sen. Carrie Ruud said, and it's not just because of election-year politics.

"Every once in a while you get into a squabble, but you're passionate about the issues that affect your district," Ruud said.

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