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Fireworks start on opening day

ST. PAUL - Good feelings evident at the opening of the 2012 Minnesota legislative session quickly evaporated as lawmakers dove into their work.

Legislators exchanged handshakes and hugs early Tuesday as they returned to the Capitol. But contentious issues soon chipped away at the friendly start.

A Senate committee, controlled by the Republican majority, started the fireworks Tuesday afternoon by approving a nearly $2.7 million cut to the chamber's budget made necessary as part of the 2011 budget agreement.

More than $400,000 of those cuts were to DFL staff, which would require a layoff of 12 to 14 people.

"This is a dangerous precedent we're taking," Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said.

While the Legislature's must-do list for the session is short, this might be just the beginning of the controversy.

While House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he hoped lawmakers would focus on jobs and steer away from controversial constitutional amendments, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said Republicans are planning "a constitutional amendment or two."

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he is working on one that would make it optional for employees to join a union if they get hired at a union company. Thompson said he understands the issue will create an intense debate.

"I don't think that is a bad thing," he said. "We need to make this a better, more appealing business climate."

Gov. Mark Dayton said the state and U.S. constitutions "intentionally require the different branches of government to collaborate," but the Legislature has skipped over the executive branch all together to put issues on the ballot.

There also appears to be a debate coming over the size of a public works bill. Dayton proposed spending $775 million on such projects across the state. Republicans say that is too much. And lawmakers on both sides were critical that Dayton's bill dedicated just $20 million to flood relief.

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, said he is less focused on the overall number and more on whether individual projects warrant state dollars. Kriesel said projects for roads, bridges and other infrastructure will take precedence over those "that might not be a necessity."

The Vikings stadium is a key issue this session as well.

"Let's face up to this," Dayton said. He pushed for a vote this session and said the team, stadium supporters and opponents all deserve a resolution. He has most recently advocated for using the Metrodome site.

"In this session, the only viable solution is the Metrodome site," he said.

One of the House advocates for a stadium bill agrees that the issue is important, but Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said he still is open-minded about Minneapolis or Arden Hills.

While there already were signs of stress, some lawmakers still had hopes the session could end quickly with little controversy.

Legislators also remain confident they can work with the governor on reforms to state government that will streamline operations.

"It's a fresh new session. There's lots of energy," Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said.

Dayton also encouraged collaboration.

"Let's take all the good ideas and put them together," he said.

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said he hopes both parties keep peace for as long as possible. There are issues such as jobs, the spread of invasive species and passing a bonding bill that should be addressed.

"There is a time when we draw swords out and draw blood, but this is not that time," Howes said.

Lawmakers also want to keep the session short. The House has set a tentative adjournment date of April 30. Minority Leader Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he'd like to see the session end even earlier.

"I'm going to set the bar," he said. "Let's go home on April 2."

Part of the motivation for an early exit is redistricting. New district maps will be revealed in February and legislators likely will be anxious to get home to meet constituents.

"They'll want to build relationships with their new district," said Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing.