Vote on budget-cutting bill gives GOP first look at how hard it can be holding a majority caucus together

Rep. King Banaian
Rep. King Banaian

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.

What happened?

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 01/28/2011 - 02:29 pm.

    “Rep. Cornish is Rep. Cornish”

    Well, glad that mystery is solved.

    I have to confess, I expected the majority to hold together a bit longer, and only start to give in to reality when the press and the minority started explaining real-world consequences of abstract cuts. Happy to be wrong in this case. Perhaps some sanity will prevail by May.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/28/2011 - 04:18 pm.

    Presumably Rep. Banaian, perhaps the most vulnerable of the new Republican legislators, got the OK from house leadership to vote against the bill. There will be a lot of reality for Republicans to come to grips with in the next month or two. It will be an interesting time.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/28/2011 - 08:50 pm.

    There is a certain amount of irony in the Banaian situation. King is well known as a hard-core conservative and is supported by some of the hard-core right wing squawkradio folks, e.g. as Mitch P Berg, who runs a blog by the name of “A Shot in the Dark.” [sic]

    Ordinarily, one would expect a great hew and cry from people like Berg, and shrill complaints about RINOs…

    The fact that there hasn’t been – so far – makes the hypocrisy of the right wing half of the GOP evident. If it is a sin for GOP moderates to follow their conscience, then why not conservatives?

    By the way, I give King credit for this. It took guts. If I lived in St. Cloud I might even vote for him. Every once in a while you find a real conservative who actually has some brains and is not just another chanter. My favorite example of this was Barry Goldwater who supported abortion rights and gays in the military, much to the chagrin of the chanters.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/29/2011 - 11:35 am.

    Dare we hope that a goodly number of the freshman Republican class did NOT sign the infamous no-new-taxes pledge?

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 01/29/2011 - 12:58 pm.

    Banaian won his seat by 10 votes, so he may feel it’s a good idea to make votes that play in his district. He probably also sees that cuts to higher ed hurt state competitiveness and will make tuition go up for students — who so far are still allowed to vote where they go to school without producing IDs.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/29/2011 - 01:01 pm.

    Republicans hold a 72 to 62 edge in the house where it takes 68 votes to pass a bill. That means that on any party line vote, assuming no DFL defections, house Republican leaders have 4 votes to give, 4 legislators whose votes are politically difficult, who can be let off the hook. I would think that the Republicans who were allowed to vote against the bill by their leaders are the ones Republican leaders feel are most vulnerable, an analysis with which I concur.

  7. Submitted by craig furguson on 01/30/2011 - 08:29 pm.

    Cracks in ideology? I’m hopeful.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/30/2011 - 10:02 pm.

    A few years ago the “Override Six” were courageous, brave, and heroes. What happened? Now if someone breaks from the party line (why isn’t it ever a DFLer?) they are covering their rears or have been given permission. Make up your minds people!

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/31/2011 - 05:54 am.

    Most of the gang of six left office, for one reason or another. The immediate reaction was that the Republican leadership sanctioned them to the point where the speaker had to step in to product the ability of those dissenting members to represent their constituents. No such sanctions have been applied to Rep. Banaian, and that’s because his vote was approved by the leadership. Knowing this was a tough vote for a freshman legislator on the bubble, Republican leaders gave him one of the four golden tickets they have allowing him to vote no on a bill that would hurt the voters who sent him to the state capitol.

    Will the voters of St. Cloud be fooled by Rep. Banaian’s nominal no vote? I hope not. The voters of St. Cloud need to understand that the reason a bill passed that was hurt them is because there is a Republican majority in the legislature, a majority they helped to create by electing King Banaian, and that Rep. Banaian is responsible for what that majority does, even when his leaders give him permission to vote against the leadership in those situations, as was the case here, when his vote wasn’t needed.


  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/31/2011 - 06:23 am.

    By the way, I am not sure that “golden ticket” as a term for a vote legislative leaders allow their members to cast against leadership positions for strategic purposes is that commonly used, but I really like it. I got the term from Roald Dahl’s book “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”.

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