Minnesota's 2004 legislative session was rated a disappointment by most area legislators -- with one state senator saying he'd give the lawmakers a failing grade this year.
"I'd give us all an 'F,' all 201 legislators, including myself, if we can't come down here and put people first," said Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley.
Rep. Dale Walz, R-Brainerd, completing his last regular session before he returns to being a full-time Baxter police captain, said he was disappointed the House and Senate couldn't reach agreement on a budget fix or a bonding bill.
"This session was the worst in four years as far as partisanship," Walz said.
He was particularly disappointed the Senate refused to vote on a Defense of Marriage Act, noting he received about 5,000 e-mails from people who wanted the Legislature to act on that issue.
Mean-spirited and partisan were the words Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, used to sum up the session. She faulted DFL leadership for not having the full confidence of its members and the ability to close a deal.
"I really think the DFL (majority in the) Senate was given many, many, many opportunities ... many compromises they could have worked out," Ruud said. "I don't think they have a closer."
One major disappointment for her was that sexual predator laws were not toughened. She said DFL senators objected to life sentences for first-time offenders in heinous crimes.
Also disheartening, she said, was the DFL Senate leadership's refusal to allow discussion on the Defense of Marriage Act.
"We were never allowed to have that discussion," she said. "Vote it up or down. If we had brought it to a vote we would not have spent all this time on it. The only reason time was spent was because the DFL refused to bring it to a vote."
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, who watched the Senate proceedings regarding the Defense of Marriage Act said the Senate was "totally wrong" when it ignored a motion before the body on that legislation.
The Legislature did approve a bill dropping the drunken driving threshold to .08. Ruud voted for the measure, stating it was time to get it done and not hope the state could recoup federal transportation money down the road by adopting it later. Koering voted against it, objecting to the federal government's coercive tactics and saying he was unconvinced that the measure would save a specific number of lives as its proponents claimed. He also saw it as an unfunded mandate that would affect counties.
The two senators also found themselves on opposite sides of the off-highway vehicle bill that was approved by the Legislature, with Ruud favoring the bill and Koering wishing it would have been more mindful of private property rights.
Ruud said the previous year's bill got too hung up on regulations. This year's bill references the wetlands act that's already in place.
"Basically you can't ruin the wetlands whether it's public or private," she said.
Koering said the bill didn't go the direction he wanted to see it go.
"I still believe that our private property rights are under assault," Koering said. "People think government knows best."
Ruud and Howes both were pleased with the statewide phosphorous ban for most residential lawn owners.
If a special session considers a bonding bill, Ruud said she'd like to see the bridges for the Paul Bunyan Trail at Baxter and Bemidji approved. The Baxter bridge cost is $1.5 million and the Bemidji bridge is $5.2 million because it involves land acquisition. She said the Baxter project might have a better chance than the Bemidji one because of the lower cost.
Koering expressed frustration that bills he worked on that would set a penalty for video voyeurism and change some of the regulations regarding MnCare eligibility requirements for farmers and resort owners were placed into a "giant garbage bill" on the last day of the session. The bill wasn't approved in the Senate.
"You put four months of work into it then to have it blow up the way it did Sunday morning at 7 a.m.," Koering said.
Koering said he opposed the Senate's bonding bill because it was one the state couldn't afford. The DFLers, he said, refused to compromise and seemed to not want to pass a bonding bill.
"I'm at a loss for words for how we get back to the way it should be. I even saw members of the Senate speaking very ... talking very personal about other senators (on the Senate floor). At the end of the day it isn't about personalities it's about getting the work done."
Howes said the House was considerably less partisan.
"Most everything we passed was bipartisan after we yelled at each other for a few minutes," the Walker lawmaker said.
Howes said the session could have been markedly improved if the sexual predator law had been strengthened and if investments had been made in northern Minnesota's reforestation projects. He said he also would have liked to see passage of a law allowing Cass County to match $6 million in state funds for a regional jail. Cass would operate the jail with 75 state beds and 25 Cass beds. The pluses of this legislative session, Howes said, might be remembered in what it didn't do.
"We didn't raise your taxes," Howes said. "We didn't take anything away from the people."
Rep. Greg Blaine, R-Little Falls, said a considerable amount of work was done on the House side but the Senate leadership was often scared to vote on certain issues. Bills that would have toughened up the state's sexual predator and methamphetamine laws were part of the House omnibus judiciary bill.
"There were some major bills out there that didn't get done," Blaine said.
Blaine said he was successful in passing legislation stipulating penalties for unlicensed drivers, a measure known as Vanessa's bill. The bill was named in honor of Vanessa Weiss, a young girl who was a passenger in a car driven by an unlicensed 15-year-old. Weiss died in a one-car rollover just north of Pierz.
"It's been frustrating to me listening to some of the radio and TV media saying the Legislature did nothing," Blaine said. "I guess I would beg to differ. There were an awful lot of long days and long nights by House members."
MIKE O'ROURKE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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