A power play for the state Senate majority is in the works given the domino effect of the resignation of U.S. Senator Al Franken. A recent lawsuit filed against Michele Fischbach and an upcoming special election could complicate matters.

The Senate GOP currently controls of the chamber by the slimmest of margins, 34-33.

When Governor Mark Dayton appointed then Lt. Governor Tina Smith to fill Franken’s seat until the next election, it triggered a succession that could impact control of the state Senate.

Minnesota’s constitution requires the last elected presiding officer of the Senate to fill a vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor. That person is Michelle Fischbach, a long standing republican from Paynesville.

Fischbach isn’t thrilled with facing the prospect of having to leave her Senate seat for the lieutenant governor position. She contends that she can hold both positions. Sen. Tom Bakk and others say otherwise.

The recent health issues of Gov. Dayton raise more concerns about the sensitivity of the lieutenant governor position. Gov. Dayton joked with an audience recently saying, “Now when people ask me how I’m doing, they really mean it.” Dayton noted that his staffer was carrying a defibrillator, heart meds and other life saving gear. He’s good natured about the situation.

Lawsuit & Special Elections

A citizen in Fischbach’s senate district (SD 13) on Jan. 12 filed a lawsuit against her arguing Fischbach must vacate her Senate seat now that she’s lieutenant governor.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is in risk management mode and doesn’t want to face a special election, even in a historically safe GOP district like SD 13. Dozens of special elections in other states have not gone well for Republicans in the last several months.

Another special election could render the entire Fischbach situation moot in terms of control of the state Senate. The DFL must defend a seat in a special election for Senate District 54 (east metro; Mendota Heights, South St. Paul, Hastings). Dan Schoen (DFL) resigned his seat last December amidst sexual harassment allegations.

What should be a safe DFL seat and a win for Karla Bigham (former House DFLer and current Washington County Commissioner) has been complicated by the GOP’s challenger, Denny McNamara. McNamara was the longtime House member from Hastings, a local Republican, who is well known in the area.

Should McNamara win the special election on Feb. 12, it would give the Senate GOP and insurance card in protecting their majority as the DFL would drop to 32 Senate seats.

What’s Next?

It’s also unclear what timeline the courts are on in terms of taking up the case filed against Fischbach. The 2018 session begins on Feb. 20 and who is in charge of the Senate at that point is uncertain.

One scenario is that Bigham wins the SD 54 special keeping the DFL at 33 seats and the courts have vacated Sen. Fischbach’s election certificate to the Senate, reducing the GOP total to 33, therefore making the chamber tied 33-33 on the first day back.

There is no provision for a tie-breaker vote in the otherwise 67 member chamber. The office of Lt. Governor lost any authority in the state Senate in the early 1970’s with amendments to the state’s constitution.

The other major factor to remember is that this group of state Senators serves a four-year term and doesn’t face re-election until 2020. The Senate majority will be there in January 2019, when a new governor comes in to write a new two-year budget. Therefore Sen. Bakk is basically mandated by his party, his caucus and backers to make the play for the majority while the chance is there. The dynamics around the 2018 session just got a lot more interesting.

What’s the Impact?

A divided government remains regardless of the Senate majority, given a healthy Dayton is governor through the year and the House is firmly in GOP control. 

A bonding bill in 2018 needs a super-majority for passage anyway so minority votes are necessary in any of the above scenarios. It’s a short, non-budget session with a November election. But the new federal tax bill has thrown Minnesota a huge curveball. 

Minnesota has always conformed to federal tax changes for simplicity of businesses and individuals filing tax returns. However, simply conforming to the new federal tax structure would impact low and middle-income filers in Minnesota to the tune of raising $800+ million/year in new tax revenue.

The simplest explanation for why this will happen has to do with the trade-off for the larger standard deduction in the new federal law and the loss of several itemizers and deductions for families with several children.

Obviously, Senate DFLers want to be in charge of any tax conformity bill that emerges in 2018. They want to lend the Governor a hand in negotiating this complex situation. They don’t want to see a similar result from the 2017 session where the House and Senate GOP wrote the tax cut bill and Governor Dayton felt obligated to sign it into law. The stakes are much higher in 2018 than what we typically see in a ‘short session.’