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Opening Day’s amicable mood abruptly changed when GOP cut DFL senators’ budget

The amicable mood of the Minnesota Senate’s first floor session didn’t last long today once committee meetings got under way.

During the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, DFLers learned that they would face a $444,400 staffing reduction for the biennium, while the majority Republicans voted to stave off any GOP employee reductions in the Senate budget.

The cuts equal about 14 of Senate DFLers’ roughly 40 full-time staffers. The move is part of a plan to cut the Senate’s overall budget by nearly $2.7 million.

Last session was tough, one DFLer on the committee said. After some of the most divisive politics in Minnesota history and the longest state government shutdown last year, Sen. Keith Langseth said, today’s noon commencement had left him in good spirits.

But all that evaporated when discussion of the Senate’s budget heated up, Langseth said, noting that he thought of his house of government as “a family.”

DFL Sen. Richard Cohen agreed. “We’re only like the half-brothers of the family,” he said, referring to the one-sided cuts. “We’re the step-children.”

The remarks prodded the new committee chairman, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, to step in. “OK, OK, OK,” he said quietly, cutting Cohen off.

Sounds like your average “winner takes all” politics?

Not according to the DFL. Cohen, Langseth and Sen James Metzen — who have been involved in crafting the Senate budget for many years — said when the Democrats were in charge, they made every effort to keep cuts equitable across both parties.

This time, “What we’re doing is balancing the Senate budget with cuts to the minority staff,” Cohen said.

The total cut — 5 percent of the Senate budget — was mandated in last session’s budget agreement.

The largest cut is a $1.79 million reduction in full-time-equivalency staffing (which includes the $444,400 cutback). Other savings include eliminating match programs and employee furloughs and not hiring temporary staffers, such as committee pages. Nearly 90 percent of the Senate’s spending is tied up in staffing, said Cal Ludeman, the body’s secretary.

Ludeman, selected by Republicans last session, presented the Senate budget to the committee and answered questions.

Like everything in politics, the arguments are open to interpretation. The DFL, despite holding fewer seats than the Republicans, has a $160,000-larger budget for legislative support. That’s likely because of higher DFL salaries that result from its employees gaining seniority over the nearly 40 years it controlled the chamber.

DFLers said it was misleading to not include Republican committee administrators, who have a higher salary than the type of DFL staff members likely to be cut. With those numbers included, the Republicans would likely have a substantially higher budget.

The Rules Committee is the deciding factor on the Senate’s budget, so it won’t appear for discussion before all the members on the floor.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk attempted to amend the budget to “split the baby,” in his words. He would have distributed the roughly $450,000 reduction equally among both parties, but the measure failed.

Republican committee members barely engaged the Democrats, who said it set a precedent for the majority party to effectively make the other side bear most of the budget pain.

Metzen called it a “slippery slope” and said: “I don’t think we should go down it.” Other DFL senators implied that the same fate awaits Republicans if the DFL takes back the Senate this fall.

DFLers also criticized Republicans for adding expenses. Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum was hired at a higher salary to assume Michael Brodkorb’s former position as caucus communications director. Sviggum is paid $102,000, roughly $10,000 more than Brodkorb.

After an hour of discussion, the committee voted along party lines to adopt the budget. Republicans said it allows more flexibility than previous Democratic budgets.

Sen. Claire Robling, a Republican on the committee, said she was open to further amendments that might be “a little more satisfying” to the Democrats.

But she didn’t answer directly when asked if the partisan cuts were fair. “I’ll keep thinking about it,” she said.

After the meeting, Bakk looked back to the collegiality with which the day began. For him, it wasn’t there anymore.

“The first day, what do we do?” Bakk asked rhetorically. “Tell the Democrats they have to lay off 12 to 14 people.”

His conclusion: “They fired the first shot.”

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