They were all but holding hands as Minnesota senators entered their ornate chamber. Much work to do, they said. We’ve got to do it differently, they said. We’ve got to get along, they said. Republicans, DFLers, men, women, urban, rural. All in this together, they said.
That was at about noon Monday, the hour at which both houses of the Minnesota Legislature gathered to start the new session.
By about 12:25, however, they were back at it again. Bickering, wasting time, voting along partisan lines over anything they could find to vote on. What this means is that senators made it through the invocation without a fight.
One stunning piece of news
Back up a moment. There was a stunning bit of news after the chaplain and before the bickering broke out. Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau was actually seen and heard.
You remember that name. Molnau. Up until about a year ago, she served the state as both the lieutenant governor and commissioner of the Department of Transportation. But when she was dumped from the commissioner’s job, she all but disappeared from sight.
Monday noon, however, she made a ceremonial appearance as sort of a momentary president of the Senate, a job she held until the senators could elect their own president, which occurred at about 12:25.
Molnau, looking well, spoke briefly.
“Together we will overcome all the challenges that lay ahead,” she said.
And then, pffff, she was gone from sight again.
With Molnau back out of the picture, the Senate got down to the serious business of finding stuff to fight about.
Then, the first fight
First up, the election of president of the Senate. That’s the person who presides over this august body when it’s in full session. The DFLers nominated incumbent James Metzen from South St. Paul. The Republicans put up Sen. Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville as cannon fodder.
The vote was straight party line: Metzen 46, Fischbach 18. (DFLers hold a 46-21 advantage in the Senate.)
“Not quite a landslide,” Metzen said as he approached the front of the chamber.
He got a standing ovation from ALL members, the first standing O of the session.
“There will be no partisanship up here,” Metzen said to his colleagues as he stepped behind the big podium.
Some Republicans rolled their eyes and began rolling up their sleeves.
The first big dispute over meaningless stuff came when it was time to replace the longtime secretary of the Senate, Patrick Flahaven, who retired at the end of the year. Flahaven had been the secretary — the main parliamentarian — since 1973.
For this session, the skids were supposed to be greased so that his replacements would be his longtime assistants, JoAnne Zoff, who would handle the administrative parts of the job, and Peter Watson, an attorney who would handle the parliamentary stuff in the Senate.
No greased-skids memo?
Some Republicans apparently didn’t get the greased-skids memo.
After Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller nominated Watson and Zoff, Republican Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie stood up.
“Statute says one person shall have this job,” Hann said.
“There’s a long tradition that the Senate has a right to organize as it sees fit,” responded Pogemiller.
Hann continued to argue that the statute was clear. One person.
Metzen cleared his throat and made a hasty ruling. “I think the Senate has the right to organize as it sees fit.”
There was more discussion and then a vote on the president’s ruling. Surprise, surprise. Metzen’s ruling was supported, 46-18.
The Republicans weren’t done with this little dust-up. They nominated Daniel Wolf for secretary of the Senate. The debate continued.
“I’m still unclear if the two people have different duties or if the two people are doing the same job,” Hann said.
“It’s a division of duties,” responded Pogemiller. “I should have discussed it personally with you.”
There was more discussion. Then, the vote.
One by one, the senators voted. “Watson-Zoff … Watson-Zoff … Wolf … Watson-Zoff.”
The roll call vote came to Paul Koering, a Republican from Fort Ripley.
“Wolf-Wolf,” he said.
There was laughter.
“Was that Wolf?” the official keeper of the records asked.
“Wolf,” said Koering.
In the end, Watson-Zoff won, 43-21, and got a standing ovation from everybody.
A fightin’ mood
Even though this was supposed to be a day of simple, housekeeping business, some Republicans decided to fight everything.
Pogemiller, for example, offered a resolution that included a budget item of $5,500 for postage stamps for each senator.
Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, stood up to amend the Pogemiller resolution. She sought to reduce the stamp budget by $2,000 per senator.
“It’s not much,” said Koch, “but I did a little math. It comes to $56,000. … It’s an example to the people of Minnesota.”
“I don’t feel strongly,” said Pogemiller, “but this is the way some stay in touch with their constituents.”
More discussion and then Koch’s amendment was defeated, 39-26.
It should be noted that on this first day, things were going a little smoother in the House, where DFLers hold an 87-47 advantage.
And it also should be noted that in this year of historic budget woes and economic needs, the usual cast of lobbyists and protesters were in and around the Capitol.
Senate debates give pause about new way of working
But it was the actions in the Senate chamber that should given Minnesotans pause. Can these people really step outside their typical roles?
With the exception of the resolution that gives them free parking, the senators managed to disagree on just about everything. They managed to make 10 minutes’ work last about an hour and a half.
At the end of all this, the Senate’s minority leader, Dave Senjem of Rochester, spoke.
“Many describe this session as historic, epic, cataclysmic,” he said. “… We have to come together and do our best.”
Pogemiller, of course, got the last word.
“Get rest, eat healthy, exercise,” he said. “Let’s try to build on what we did last year.”
They all left the chamber. Their work done for another day. This time, they were saying, it’s gonna be different.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.