Editorial: State leaders still uncomfortable in new roles

by Tom West

If you think Minnesota’s state government may be somewhat dysfunctional, I may have stumbled upon a contributing factor.


On March 16, I joined 10 other members of the ECM Publishers Editorial Board for a day at the Capitol. We spent 45 minutes of quality time each with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk individually, and Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean together. The only leader we missed was House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.


Dayton mentioned that it may be unprecedented that, after the 2010 election, the governor and all of the top legislative leadership positions changed personnel simultaneously.


In a stunning change of direction, the governor’s seat went from Republican to DFL, and both houses of the Legislature went from DFL to Republican.


After the governor said that may never have happened before, I did some digging, and I think he may be right. The Legislature’s website has complete records on the top positions only back to 1933, but those revealed that no matter which party was in charge, not all of the seats changed hands simultaneously.


Much of that has to do with the state Senate. The Senate has had only 11 majority leaders in all that time. The Legislature was ostensibly non-partisan until 1972. From 1933 to 1972, the Conservatives held the majority, but only four different senators served as majority leader: Sens. Charles Orr, Archie Miller, John Zwach and Stanley Holmquist.


The DFL then took control with the 1972 election, but only two senators, Nick Coleman and Roger Moe, served as majority leader from 1973 to 2003.


Since then, five people have held the post, a sign of the growing political instability in the state: DFLers John Hottinger, Dean Johnson and Lawrence Pogemiller and Republicans Amy Koch and Senjem.


Bakk thought the Republicans were surprised when they gained the Senate majority for the first time in any of its caucus members’ careers. He said, “In 38 years, they never had a majority and didn’t have a clue what to do.”


Asked what he considered his biggest surprise since becoming minority leader, Bakk said, “The degree of their ineptness.”


Strong words. Dayton used only slightly less so. Asked what has surprised him the most since becoming governor, he said, “The intransigence of the Legislature. I have never before seen the inability to compromise.”


The Republicans, of course, see things differently. Dean said when he first came to the Legislature he was told to vote his conscience first, to vote his constituents’ wishes second and to vote his caucus’ position third. “You pull closest together when you’re getting shot at,” he said, “which we’ve been getting a lot of.”


Senjem noted that of the 37 senators of the Republican caucus, 21 are freshmen. He served as minority leader from 2007-2010 and stepped aside when the party gained the majority. However, Koch then resigned after having an affair with a Senate staffer and the GOP again turned to Senjem. He said his biggest surprise has been, “How important people think this position (majority leader) is. All of a sudden, people seemed to care what I said and what I thought. … I came out of the fabric of (the Mayo Clinic) where one leader doesn’t decide everything.”


Zellers said his biggest surprise as speaker has been  “The ebbs and flows of every day.”


When the GOP took control, it had a $5 billion budget deficit to fix. Today, the state’s financial analysts say Minnesota has a $1.3 billion budget surplus. Zellers said they have a good record to run on because they closed the gap without increasing state taxes.


DFLers have charged that local property taxes have gone up significantly, at least in outstate Minnesota, because the Republicans changed the formula regarding the homestead credit.


Dean countered that, saying, “(The DFL’s) only response is to raise taxes and grow government.”


“It isn’t about us,” said Zellers. “It’s about small business owners.”


Bakk said that he has never seen a caucus vote with more unity than the Republicans do now. While acknowledging, “They (the Republicans) are very principled,” Bakk characterized the GOP position as, “This is what we promised on the campaign trail, and we aren’t going to change, even if we learned something down here.”


Zellers said he was proud of progress made by the 33 freshmen GOP legislators. He joked, “If you’re not careful, you can learn a heck of a lot down here every day.”


If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years covering politicians is that when you get to speak with them face-to-face, generally you will find most of them are decent people trying to do the job for which they were elected. With every one of the legislative leaders and the governor in new positions last year, it is less surprising that they all miscalculated about what it would take to pass a budget, thus leading to the summer shutdown last year.


You can decide for yourself from the statements above who is being most partisan, but I came away thinking neither side is comfortable in their new roles. Nor should they be.  The voters have them on a short leash, and that won’t change any time soon.


Editor’s note: Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Morrison County Record, a publication of ECM Publishers Inc. He may be reached at 320-632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].


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