The more things change, the more they remain the same.
A new DFL governor had just been elected after a close and hard-fought campaign, taking the office from the GOP, whose incumbent was not on the ballot. The GOP won majorities, however, in the 134-member Minnesota House and 67-member Minnesota Senate.
This was 1971.
And early on, the House decided to draw the line politically, forcing several policy confrontations with the new chief executive. But the Senate majority ultimately took another path — as the Majority Leader privately confided: “Governors come and go, but the Senate, we’re the state of Minnesota!”
At least that’s how I recall it, as a young Conservative Caucus aide to Majority Leader Stanley Holmquist in 1971, when we talked strategy in dealing with newly elected Gov. Wendell R. Anderson early in the session.
Worked closely with Anderson
Holmquist, with his razor thin 34-member majority in the officially “non-partisan” Senate, chose to work closely with Anderson as he joined the new governor in addressing a serious property tax revolt, mostly generated from rural Minnesota, which had created the ferment for needed reform of long-established policies.
Chronicled for the nation to see, with Anderson on the front page of Time Magazine, “The Minnesota Miracle” got state government to help fund local governments and school districts that had previously been financed mostly through autonomously levied property taxes.
The most well-known part of the plan addressed the disparities in the levels of education funding between property-tax-rich and property-tax-poor districts, seeking to equalize education for all K-12 students.
The new laws enacted in 1971, as supporters like the Citizens League have argued, helped to shape Minnesota’s prolonged cycle of economic prosperity for three decades.
Experience had taught Holmquist, a lumberyard owner and former school superintendent from Grove City, that the three-pronged policy debates between the governor and two legislative bodies were generally decided when two of the three parties involved could find common ground.
Governor can get what he wants
The last eight years of the administration of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty have shown that a determined governor can get what he wants, too, even if both bodies of the Legislature have distinctly different ideas.
It appears that 2011 may offer dynamics that parallel but are also vastly different from those of 40 years ago.
In 2011, Senate Majority Leader-designate Amy Koch of Buffalo will become Holmquist’s successor as the next Republican and the first woman to oversee the Senate-and with a 37-vote majority.
A 16-seat pick up in the Nov. 2 election was a largely unexpected electoral success for Republicans, an effort in which she was the caucus leader.
Koch, a former Russian language linguist for NSA, and her counterpart, Republican House Speaker-designate Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, share a philosophical agenda. It focuses on the responsibility of government to live within its means and a dramatic “redesign” or reform of the legislative and state government processes.
Inheriting a projected $6-7 billion budget shortfall, GOP legislators-elect have collectively agreed that the state can balance the books through spending cuts and without raising taxes.
The challenge for GOP in Legislature
The challenge for legislative Republicans will be fourfold: 1) organizing the housekeeping details of both the House and Senate, corralling and focusing the most capable staff who will perform both partisan and nonpartisan budget research; 2) creating a tax-averse plan for fiscal solvency that will pass muster with the party and its key supporters as well as with the general public; 3) wisely positioning themselves with the new governor and his key advisers who will be charged with preparing the next two-year budget; and, 4) thinking through all options, including the likelihood of considering some kind of “revenue enhancers” as part of the ultimate solution that everyone hopes will help jump-start Minnesota’s economy for the next two years.
Koch believes that the GOP agenda is possible considering the state’s anticipated revenue increases of 7 percent. “I don’t think it’s easy, I absolutely think it’s feasible,” she has said.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He has served as State Republican Chair and former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. He can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.com.