Republican legislative leaders quickly are learning that it’s easier to hold the caucus together when they’re in the minority rather than the majority.
On the first big economic vote of the still-new session, four Republicans joined a united DFL minority in opposing a $1 billion budget-cutting bill that Republican leadership claimed was the “easy part” of cutting into the state’s $6.2 billion deficit.
Well, actually, there were 3.5 Republicans joining the DFL in opposing the bill. Freshman Rep. Rich Murray voted for the budget cuts but then, after voting had closed, switched to vote against the measure, which passed 68-63.
The biggest Republican defector was freshman Rep. King Banaian a St. Cloud State University economics professor and a conservative blogger.
Just a couple of weeks ago, beaming House Republican leaders described Banaian as the caucus’s “Wayne Gretzky” on economic issues.
For non-hockey followers, that means that Banaian was being described as the majority’s economics superstar, its guru, its leader.
Now, right out of the box he said “no” to the first Republican plan.
Reality crossed paths with rhetoric.
The Republican proposal calls for the continuation of cuts made to state colleges by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature to bring the budget in balance last year. Those amount to $184 million for public colleges, including Banaian’s employer, St. Cloud State.
“We’ve take a couple of pretty serious hits already,” Banaian told the St. Cloud Times in explaining his opposition to the bill. “To do this on extending an agreement by a previous Legislature and a previous governor didn’t seem like the right vote for St. Cloud at this time.”
In other words, the Republicans’ Gretzky fanned on his first big shot.
When the Republicans were in the minority, they marched in lockstep. On the one big occasion when Republicans didn’t stand united behind leadership and Pawlenty — the override of the governor’s veto of a gasoline tax increase in 2008 — those who fell out of step faced severe intra-party punishment.
But this morning, House Majority Leader Matt Dean was offering nothing but pleasant words for the caucus defectors.
Leadership, Dean said, encourages its members to take votes that “reflect their districts.”
There’s pragmatic reason for that. Although Republicans swept into power this year, they did so by the tiniest of margins.
Banaian won only after a recount. Murray won his race by 57 votes. The charismatic John Kriesel, who also is seen as a star in the Republicans’ freshman class, is from Cottage Grove and won in a historically DFL district. Rep. Debra Kiel, another freshman crossover, came to St. Paul after knocking out DFL incumbent Bernie Lieder by 131 votes.
Kiel expressed concern over Local Government Aid cuts promoted in the Republicans’ first attack on the budget.
If Republican leadership can’t hold its caucus together on this first budget vote, imagine how difficult it will be to find conformity as it attempts to cut the remaining $5.2 billion with a cuts-only approach.
And that challenge will grow only more difficult next week. On Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to put forward a $1 billion bonding bill in an effort to spur job growth and build state infrastructure. The Republican leadership notes that this traditionally is a non-bonding year, and Dean this morning signaled that the caucus will oppose a bonding bill.
“It’s not the time to take out the credit card,’’ he said.
But bonding means projects in local districts. Projects mean jobs. Jobs mean money on Main Streets across the state. How many Republicans — especially freshman Republicans — are going to be willing to say “no” to sending money back home?
It wasn’t just economic issues that had to cause concern to the majority’s leadership.
Rep. Tony Cornish, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, shoved legislation through his committee that virtually guts Minnesota gun-control laws.
Given the tragedy in Tucson and the extreme nature of the bill, the timing of this act seemed strange.
Dean sort of rolled his eyes when asked about Cornish.
The leadership’s priorities, Dean said, are jobs and the economy.
So what did the leadership think of the gun bill?
“Rep. Cornish is Rep. Cornish,” Dean said in explanation.
Of course, he was handed a gavel by the leadership.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.