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State Capitol awakens with start of the new legislative session

Lawmakers fill the House chamber at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday, the first day of the 2019 legislative session. John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL -- A quiet morning at the state Capitol was interrupted this past week by a familiar echo that rang louder by the minute.

Hurried footsteps and murmured exchanges quickly reached a crescendo as activists filed in by the hundreds. They waived signs and shouted their cause to lawmakers who entered the House and Senate chambers.

This sequence — now that the Minnesota Legislature is back in town — will likely unfold again and again as the 2019 session rolls on.

“There’s two … life cycles of this building: in session and out of session,” said Brian Pease, the Capitol site manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. “It’s kind of this laboratory of experience where you really get a sense of how this building functions.”

In many ways, the Capitol complex on the edge of downtown St. Paul is like a little city, with an army of state workers, eateries, a barber and a police force. Even when the Legislature is not in session, there’s a buzz of activity. When the lawmakers return, though, that grows into a thunder.

The Capitol comes to life during the session, teeming with tension and disputes and even compromise. For the next several months, everyone from lobbyists to activists and journalists to visitors will flock to the building, clamoring for attention and a front-row seat to history.

Democracy on display

All eyes will be on the 201 lawmakers who will descend on the Capitol from across the state. They will have to find common ground in the only split Legislature in the country.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party controls the House and governor’s office and Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the Senate. Both parties may end up having to check their ambitions if they want to avoid partisan fights on hot-button issues.

The Legislature has until May 20 to piece together a two-year state budget that will approach $50 billion. Lawmakers also must choose whether to extend a tax on health care providers that will expire at the end of the year, and whether they want to align the state tax code with recent federal changes.

They will meet constituents in offices, weigh testimony in committee meetings and publicly debate — and then vote — on the bills in ornate chambers in view of the public.

And they will have to do so as special interests try to influence their decisions.

Behind the scenes

A fixture at the Capitol, even outnumbering the lawmakers themselves, are the lobbyists. This past week, they could be seen scrambling to introduce themselves to new legislators and find members who will champion their goals.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, met with lawmakers and penciled in appointments for the weeks to come.

“It is an extremely busy time,” Croonquist said. “It is a real scramble and a real chore to try to get time … on their calendar.”

He said securing funding for school budgets, student mental health services and school safety measures are his main focus.

The majority of the nearly 1,300 registered state lobbyists will try to influence what happens at the Capitol, as will the thousands of activists trying to get attention for their issues.

The activists

Gun-control advocates wasted no time this year, with hundreds showing up on the first day at the Capitol. They lined outside the House and Senate chambers calling for measures like red-flag laws and universal background checks. Their chants echoed through the building’s hallways. They will likely be back several times this year.

They were met Tuesday by a group of gun-rights supporters who stopped to quarrel with them. They, too, will be back several times this year.

Meanwhile, a group of pro-marijuana canvassers made their way through the State Office Building, where many lawmakers have offices. They were seeking out legislative aides and dropping off drafts of a proposal to legalize recreational marijuana.

“We’re mostly trying to target leadership,” said John Bartee, one of the canvassers from the Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization.

Activists will be a daily fixture at the state Capitol over the next few months, especially when hot-button issues come up for debate. Oftentimes, there is more than one rally a day.

That likely will not change this year, as the Legislature is expected to take up gun-control measures, a proposed gas tax hike and potentially the legalization of recreational marijuana.

The sightseers

More than 150,000 visitors tour the Capitol each year, many of them during the busy session to get a front-row seat to history, said Pease of the Historical Society. And plenty more onlookers roam the sites on their own.

The Historical Society’s free, 45-minute guided tours tell visitors about the Capitol’s history, art and architecture. They also share how state government works.

“When we look at the building during session, we’re trying to … (show them that) this is a living history site. What you’re seeing today is what you’re going to see in the news tonight,” he said.

A tour group of 11 that explored the building this past week marveled at the towering Rotunda and took in the chambers of the state House and Supreme Court. They passed a tour group of fidgety schoolchildren as they neared the end of their visit. A third of those on tours generally are students, who often let out “oohs” and “ahs” as they peer up at the Rotunda.

“It’s kind of like the ‘oh my gosh’ type of moment,” Pease said.

The regulars

Pease is one of the long-timers at the Capitol — this is his 29th legislative session.

Ken Kirkpatrick is another.

Kirkpatrick runs a barber shop tucked inside the basement of the State Office Building, where he has cut the hair of politicians, lobbyists and rank-and-file state workers for the past 46 years.

He sold his shop to his son in 2016 with plans to semi-retire. But he could not part with the commotion of the Capitol, especially when the lawmakers are in session.

“I failed retirement,” Kirkpatrick laughed.

“There’s always stuff going on (during session),” he said. “There’s even a different spirit in the buildings, you can feel it.”