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On Opening Day, role reversal gives DFL legislators a taste of power politics

Sen. Amy Koch made history today as Minnesota's first female Senate majority leader.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Sen. Amy Koch made history today as Minnesota’s first female Senate majority leader.

For all the talk of cooperation and civility that filled this ceremonial first day of the new legislative session, power is still the name of the game. And there is power only in numbers.

There were two votes — an intriguing one in the House, and another in the Senate — that clearly put the DFL in its minority place.

Start with the House vote. As the first day, filled with ceremonial moments and considerable applause, was about to come to a yawning conclusion, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen rose to present an amendment that would have required any proposals to amend the state Constitution to be put off until after all bills “necessary to provide a balanced general fund budget for the biennium beginning on July of that year have been enacted into law.”

A question of priorities?
Thissen said his rules change was all about “priorities.” The Legislature, he said, should not get involved in controversial debates on constitutional amendments until the big issue — the budget deficit — is resolved.

In fact, Thissen was addressing a huge concern that DFLers have — that Republicans will try to legislate controversial social issues by getting state constitutional amendments before voters. The amendment that many believe could arise from the Legislature this year is one that would limit marriage (and other forms of civil union) to a man and a woman.

Rep. Matt Dean, the brand-new House majority leader, handled Thissen’s proposal with aplomb.

“Thanks for the idea,” Dean said with a straight face. Then he added, “But …”

Tackling the deficit is the big issue, Dean said, but the new majority also believes that “process” is important.

He suggested that Thissen’s rules idea should get a full vetting in the House Rules Committee before it’s taken up on the floor. By following process, Dean said, first-year members would have a chance to study the issue and the public would have a chance to “weigh in on it.”

Dean called for a vote on the idea that Thissen’s rules amendment be sent to the rules committee, and the DFL again was reminded of the cost of losing elections. Dean’s suggestion prevailed by a vote of 72-62, with two DFLers siding with the Republican majority.

To their credit, DFLers expressed no shock or amazement that their idea had been trounced.

There was a similar reminder of majority power in the Senate, though the issue was less substantial.

Two nominees were up to become the secretary of the Senate, a fulltime gig with a nonpartisan history. The Republicans nominated party warhorse Cal Ludeman, a onetime gubernatorial candidate, a former legislator and, most recently, the commissioner of the Human Services Department under Tim Pawlenty. DFLers nominated Don Betzold, who became a former DFL senator during November’s Republican wave.

The new majority — with support from two DFLers — gave Ludeman the victory, and that was just one more reminder to the DFLers that, after 40 years, they no longer control the Senate.

Again, to their credit, Senate DFLers accepted their minority status with public grace. Unlike last year — when the Republican minority turned the first day of the session into a circus of votes on all sorts of inconsequential matters, including how many postage stamps each senator should receive — the DFLers simply voted in support of the housekeeping rules that are required to get the legislative motor running.

A day of history, too
Mostly, it was a day in which history was being acknowledged in the Senate.

Not only are Republicans in charge for the first time since 1972 — before that, legislators didn’t carry party labels, although conservatives held control until ’72 — women are in high-profile positions of power.

Amy Koch is the Senate’s first female majority leader. Michelle Fischbach is the first female president of the Senate. Julianne Ortman is the first woman to head the powerful tax committee.

Koch made a couple of humorous references to the situation, noting that the gold horses pulling the warrior in the chariot atop the Capitol — are being guided by women.

She also called for one technical change in Senate rules. She noted that Senate rules call for members to address each other as “sir or ma’am.” Henceforth, there’s been a switch in the order of things in how the rule is written. Now it is “ma’am or sir.”

That drew laughs and near universal support, although one male voice could be heard saying, “Nay,” to the change.

There also was some gallows humor among DFLers before the session began.

Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, recalled with bemused regret about how two years ago the Senate considered allowing at least some members of the minority to move from offices in the State Office Building to the Capitol, where majority senators have their offices.

“We voted it down,” said Tomassoni of allowing minority members into the big building.

He laughed and shook his head.

Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, recalled that vote and laughed, too.

“What goes around comes around,” he said.

Now, of course, it’s Republican senators with offices in the Capitol while DFL senators have to make the quarter-mile march to their new digs in the State Office Building. And now it’s DFLers who will have to hear all the cracks about how the long walk “is good for your health.”

But underneath the mostly tranquil opening day, DFLers were showing great concern, too.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, talked of how she doesn’t see how the new majority, filled with feisty rookies, can back off, even a little, from no-new-taxes pledges. The new group, she fears, actually believes most of its own rhetoric.

Hausman, an expert on bonding, said that even that term is “poison.”

“In their campaigns, they turned bonding into pork,” she said. That means that most DFLers will now call bonding “infrastructure investment” as they try to push their agenda up what has become a very steep hill.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 01/04/2011 - 05:28 pm.

    This is such inside baseball it’s string and cork.

  2. Submitted by Eric Larson on 01/04/2011 - 08:03 pm.

    1) I’ll quote President Obama…Elections have consequences. There are going to be Constitutional Amendment proposals. And the people are going to vote on them. DFL Chairman sat on them for decades. When polls show better then 3/4’s of the people support an issue, those chairman sat on them. Sen. Skoglund and conceal & carry comes to mind. We are going to see some peoples democracy and the DFL is going to be shocked. Oh btw- Sen. Hausman is right. These Repubs are not going to compromise on spending issues. They would rather lose their positions then compromise on taxes. They stick by the citizens of Minnesota who elected them to accomplish these measures. Study the last 8 years. Each time it got down to crunch time and the DFL demanded taxes increases and Gov Palenty said ‘no’. It was the DFL who blinked. Shutting down the govt means shutting down the paychecks of the DFL rank and file. MAK and Pogey just couldn’t stomach that. It will happen again and again. The Repubs will dare the Governor to shut down the govt. The sun will rise, Ford trucks will be built, the Miss river will run, the freeways will work, the shops will open etc. The farmers will plow their fields as if nothing has changed, but the DFL machinery will grind to a halt because their jobs were proven un-needed. AFSCME & MEA hear this now. Go in ask for a small cut in everything. That should preserve your union for a year or two.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/04/2011 - 10:18 pm.

    Yup… the Republicans have been able to hide behind the DFL majorities and whine, and whine, and whine, and whine about all the wonderful ideas they had that the DFL wouldn’t listen to.

    Now they’re going to be able to ram those ideas right down the throats of the rest of the legislature, but, in doing so, and in Governor Dayton’s vetoing of many if not most of them, the public will finally hear what those ideas have been all along.

    And, considering the devastation little King Timmy was able to work with his veto pen, and the way so many people in the state are already suffering, (except, of course for the fabulously wealthy) each and every one of those ideas are going to smell like rotting garbage to the general public.

    They’d better change the phrase “better business climate” to something else, as well, because at this point, that phrase has been amply revealed to the general public as translating into fewer jobs with fewer benefits and lower pay for the average person (the poor get poorer) while the amazingly overweight cats at the top just keep packing on the financial pounds.

    The Republicans have been promising us that if we’d just give them a chance they’d really change things in Minnesota, but the inattentive citizens who voted for “change” are not going to be happy as they discover that we’re not going to be changing back to what always worked so well for us in the past, but “changing” in the direction of attempting even more economic devastation and destruction than we’ve already suffered during King Timmy’s reign.

    Every piece of legislation the Republicans try to enact will drop their popularity (it’s going to be a VERY short honeymoon).

    Every piece of legislation Governor Dayton finds it necessary to veto will turn him even more into a hero for the regular citizens of Minnesota.

  4. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 01/05/2011 - 07:53 am.

    I think what Mr. Larson fails to understand is that this country is not a “peoples’ democracy” but a representative republic. The majority leaders need to take responsibility and simply vote on issues in their respective houses and not put them on the ballot. What Republicans (and even Democrats recently) want to do and have done is nothing more than a cop out. Have a vote on legislation and no more of this nonsense.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/05/2011 - 08:21 am.

    …We are going to see some peoples democracy…

    So you’re saying that the past elections were not democracy in action?

    You may disagree with the policies but to imply that the previous legislators were not voted in in a democratic election process is just wrong. They won on the basis of votes from a majority of citizens through many cycles of elections who apparently approved of the legislators actions.

    Obviously, the temperament has changed and democracy has worked and another party is in power. And, more than likely, the paucity of solutions offered by the Republicans will be found wanting and another party will be in power again.

    Just because the outcome is not what you want doesn’t mean that democracy didn’t work, it just means that you weren’t in the majority. So get over it, democracy is not about meeting your demands, it’s about majority rules.

    ….The sun will rise, Ford trucks will be built… Not for long, at least with respect to the Ford trucks in Minnesota.

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