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Capitol Chatter: Special legislative election takes on statewide importance

The Minnesota Senate on May 1, 2017. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—A Minnesota Senate special election in the southeastern Twin Cities carries more importance than usual, with a statewide impact.

The race to fill the seat of recently resigned Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, could help determine who controls the state Senate.

Schoen left the Senate after being accused of sexual misconduct as Republicans held a one-vote edge in the 67-member body. If Democrat Karla Bigham wins the seat, her party remains just one vote down.

Now enter the latest Minnesota constitutional crisis.

Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, has been promoted to lieutenant governor. The way Democrats read the state Constitution, that means she no longer can be a senator, which would leave the Senate in a 33-33 tie for several weeks or months.

Republicans read it differently, saying it is just a temporary job, but her Senate gig is her main one. So, they say, she can do both jobs until Gov. Mark Dayton's term ends in early 2019.

If Bigham defeats former state Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, in the Feb. 12 election to replace Schoen and Fischbach stays in the Senate, Minnesotans can expect Democrats to take Fischbach to court, demanding that she resign as senator. That would put her Senate District 13 seat up for grabs.

Even though Fischbach's district is a GOP area, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, says anything can happen in a special election. If there is a District 13 special election, it could become the most expensive and hottest Minnesota legislative race ever because the winning party would control the Senate.

"It feels like a hail Mary in football," Gazelka said of the chances that Democrats would win Fischbach's seat, which can happen only if Bigham beats McNamara next month.

Gazelka refused to say how much the southeastern Twin Cities race may cost, but offered: "We're going to spend the money we need."

People in the McNamara-Bigham district can expect campaign literature in the mail, regular telephone calls from campaigns and all kinds of other attention from both candidates.

McNamara did well in his state House elections, dominating his home base of Hastings. But his old House district is just half of the Senate district and Bigham not only has been elected to the House, but also to her current job on the Washington County board.

If McNamara wins, Gazelka and others say it is much less likely that Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, will spend the money and time to take Fischbach to court.

But if Bigham wins, it will set off a constitutional debate as the parties battle for Senate control.

Auditor awaits ruling

State Auditor Rebecca Otto received what may be her final day in court Wednesday, Jan. 3, as she argues that a 2015 law unconstitutionally removed county auditing duties from her office.

After two other courts rejected Otto's claim, the Supreme Court heard the case.

Otto sued Becker and Wright counties after they informed her office that they planned to do as the law allows and hire a private firm to audit their books instead allowing of her office to do the job.

Justices did not indicate when they will decide the case.

Addiction group chapter opens

A national group that helps families with addiction issues has opened a Minnesota chapter.

The Addiction Policy Forum will deal with education, prevention, treatment, recovery, overdose reversal and criminal justice.

"Leaders in Minnesota have taken many positive steps toward addressing addiction in communities throughout the state and we applaud their efforts," said Jessica Hulsey Nickel, president and chief executive officer of the Addiction Policy Forum, adding that thousands of Minnesotans still "need services, treatment and support for themselves and their loved ones who are suffering."

Traveling for bonding

A state Senate committee that decides what public works projects get funding is getting a late start in looking them over.

The bonding committee plans a 12-day tour of the state this month.The panel normally would have started in warmer times last year, but a dispute with Gov. Mark Dayton left the Legislature with no funding, so Senate leaders postponed trips.

However, lawmakers borrowed money from another source and committee work is back on track.

Lawmakers need to pass a budget shortly after they begin their 2018 session on Feb. 20.

"Bonding projects are the state's way of investing in its own future, and there is no better investment than Greater Minnesota," Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, said. "Vital projects in transportation, education and our veterans deserve to be considered."

Dayton plans to release his bonding recommendations later this month. The discussion will be one of the prime topics when lawmakers return to St. Paul.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.