Yet again, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, finds himself in a pivotal role as the the leader of a Republican state senate sandwiched between a DFL Minnesota House and governorship in the only split Legislature of the nation

With another legislative session on the horizon, Gazelka called the Dispatch Tuesday, Jan. 14, to give a rundown of his priorities going forward. There’s some familiar items on the docket — roads and bridges improvements, insulin price reductions — while newer issues, such as how to address widespread dysfunction in the Minnesota Department of Human Services, are rising to the forefront.

Now with some experience in negotiation with Gov. Tim Walz after years haggling with former Gov. Mark Dayton, Gazelka said Walz often presents himself a dyed in the wool liberal with much the same points of focus as Dayton. However, once they’re able to parse away less pertinent legislation and focus on policy that affects all Minnesotans, Gazelka said, Walz has proven to be a solid collaborator.

“I think he wants to do the same liberal goals and policies — recreational marijauna, the 20% gas tax, Minnesota as a sanctuary state, etc.,” Gazelka said. “But, once we get beyond the things we know we’re not going to do … then we work together and get it done. I hope we do that this year, so that we focus on what we can get done together.”

On the other hand, lingering issues such as the fate of Enbridge Line 3 and the PolyMet mining project near the Boundary Waters are areas Gazelka said he hoped Walz would be more supportive and forceful in his approach.

From the onset, Gazelka emphasized the current biyearly budget features a $1.3 billion surplus, which means the state isn’t in a position where it needs to impose a heavier tax burden on its citizens. As such, he noted, widespread tax relief may be in order.

“Now that we’re fully funding the two-year budget and to have our reserves at its highest ceiling, we propose that we give a big chunk of that back.”

As in years past, Gazelka noted he’s going to stump for eliminating a tax on Social Security benefits — Minnesota is one of the few states in the nation to implement this tax — as well as to align state policy with federal standards in terms of property purchase tax deductions for small businesses and farms. Currently, federal law mandates a larger deduction.

In terms of bonding, Gazelka said he is considering a roughly $2 billion proposal from the Walz administration and a potential $3 billion bonding proposal from his DFL counterparts in the Minnesota House. In contrast, Gazelka said the GOP is gunning for a more modest proposal in the $750 million — or roughly the baseline rate to support the current debt load — to the $1 billion range.

“It’s very important that we find compromises,” said Gazelka, who noted the bonding bill would likely address wastewater infrastructure, higher education, roads and bridges and building maintenance. “These are the things that everyone agrees needs to get done, so we’re going to make sure that happens.”

Gazelka said the state will be taking another look at a litany of gun safety legislation, with a series of hearings taking place in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the session Feb. 11. He noted lawmakers will be hearing proposals and statements from both pro-gun control and anti-gun control advocates from across the state.

On that count, he said, the issue of gun possession among felons will be an important topic to address.

Another particular issue of contention will be renewable energy. Thirty percent of Minnesota energy comes from renewable sources.

With more and more revelations of fraud, internal dysfunction and bureaucratic malfeasance in the Minnesota Department of Human Services to the tune of more than $100 million, Gazelka said looking to restructure the department could be a key discussion point between GOP and DFL lawmakers.

Gazelka said the best course of action may be to break up the DHS and divide the state’s largest agency by far into smaller, more manageable and efficient parts. Gazelka pointed to the troubled history of MnLARS — the state’s computer system for vehicle titles and license plates — and noted it could only be addressed when Walz agreed to allow third-party analysts to assess it properly.

“I hope the governor leans in on this with us,” Gazelka said. “That’s the same kind of attitude I hope the governor has to help us fix the DHS, because it’s a bigger mess.”

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.