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.