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Home / News / Would trimmed DFL majority mean fewer committees? Probably not
Many Capitol habitués with and without election certificates complain that the committee structure of recent years has created a more frenzied process that stretches legislators too thin and is too hard for lobbyists to follow.

Would trimmed DFL majority mean fewer committees? Probably not

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

DFL gains in 2006 caused the number of committees in the Minnesota House to grow. Would a slimmed-down majority mean fewer committees? Not unless senior members lost re-election bids or got drafted into a Dayton administration, sources say. (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Since DFLers have held the majority, the number of committees in the state House has increased.

Many Capitol habitués with and without election certificates complain that the committee structure of recent years has created a more frenzied process that stretches legislators too thin and is too hard for lobbyists to follow.

Facing an election in which the DFL majorities in both legislative chambers are expected to lose seats, the optimists are wondering if one unintended consequence of a trimmed majority might be fewer committees.

But that depends on a lot of factors, the most important of which is the number of current committee chairmen who win re-election.

“The number of committees is almost entirely a result of how many folks in the senior classes need positions,” said one lobbyist. “I’ve got to believe that leaders both in the House and in the Senate realize that they were creating a God-awful situation for themselves and their caucus members from folks having to have so many committee assignments.”

When DFLers wrested control of the House from Republicans in 2006, they took a commanding 85-49 lead in seats. They established 26 committees, not including divisions of policy and taxes committees.

After the 2004 election, by comparison, House Republicans (who held a slim two-vote majority) set up 22 House committees. Back then, Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, combined the agriculture, environment and natural resources budgets into one committee led by Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount. (The budget bill passed by that committee was affectionately known as the “jobs, hogs and frogs” bill.)

When DFLers swept into office, they not only had a nearly veto-proof majority; they also had a cavalcade of members who had been the ranking minority members on committees before they won the majority. For instance, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, were the lead DFLers on environment and agriculture respectively. When Democrats took control of the House, Wagenius and Juhnke were due their own gavels. Thus the agriculture and environment finance committees were separated.

Among other changes, the combined Health finance and budget committee led by Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, was separated into committees led by Reps. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, and Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.

The majority of House chairs appear to be poised for re-election in safe districts for DFLers, though some could lose if the anti-incumbent wave is big enough on Nov. 2. Prognosticators differ on whether the House DFL stands to lose a net three to five seats on the low side or 10 to 12 seats on the high side. If committee chairs return to St. Paul with a significantly diminished caucus, the House leadership that succeeds Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, will either maintain the structure or find delicate ways to trim the committees.

One possibility for leadership is to appoint committee chairmen to high-level bicameral commissions such as Pensions and Retirement or the Legislative Audit Commission.

A lobbyist who is a former legislator said that another opportunity to reduce the committee count would depend on who wins the governor’s race. DFL nominee Mark Dayton would likely tap some senior DFL legislators to head the agencies that are relevant to the areas that they preside over as committee chairs. It’s not unprecedented for governors to tap committee chairman from the other party, as Tim Pawlenty did in appointing Senate Environment Chairman Gene Merriam, DFL-Coon Rapids, as commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources.

“You’ve got to think one place he will look is some legislators who have expertise. If Dayton wins, I suspect you will see some senior members become part of the administration,” the former legislator said.

The most frequently mentioned candidate for House speaker is the current majority leader, Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm. If he is elevated after the election, most say one thing is almost certain: The number of House committees won’t increase.

“It would be hard to imagine them getting much bigger. A lot of observers feel things would be more efficient if there were fewer standing committees,” the former legislator said.

Trail mix

Dave Bishop spent 20 years as a Republican representing Rochester in the state House. When he retired, Republican Carla Nelson took his seat.

Nelson is now running for the Senate. But she doesn’t have Bishop’s support. Instead, Bishop is supporting incumbent DFL Sen. Ann Lynch.

Bishop said his reasons are based on strategy rather than any change of heart. Rochester needs to have at least one senator in the majority, he said. And given that Republicans haven’t controlled the Senate since 1972, he’s betting on Lynch to be Rochester’s voice inside the caucus that controls the flow of legislation. Rochester’s other senator, Dave Senjem, is a Republican.

“Rochester has to have somebody in the majority in the Senate. I hope to have lawn signs out for Dave Senjem in the Senate and Ann Lynch for Senate. It helps to have one of each,” Bishop said.

Bishop is also backing Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner.

Bishop, a moderate Republican when he served in the Legislature, recently stood with former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson in support of Horner. He said he feels like he’s lost his welcome as the GOP has moved rightward.

“I don’t think I’ve changed. I think my party has changed. What Sarah Palin and the Tea Party people are doing is civil war in the party,” Bishop said….

BERT PEXSA, WHO IS running under the Independence Party banner for the open seat vacated by Mary Ellen Otremba in District 11B, got word this week that he survived a legal challenge by the Republican Party to stay on the November ballot.

The legal challenge arose from Pexsa’s mistaken filing as an “Independent Party” rather than an “Independence Party” candidate. Todd County resident Harlan Clark brought the lawsuit against the Todd and Douglas county auditors after they allowed Pexsa to amend his filing. The Supreme Court on Monday threw out Clark’s case.

Kari-Johnson Robinson, an Independence Party spokeswoman, said Republicans were playing politics with the lawsuit. The Pierce County Herald reported that Clark’s wife ran unsuccessfully in 2004 as a Republican against Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie.

“The Republican action represents the most cynical form of politics. They cared more about destroying and removing opposition rather than competing with it,” Robinson said.

Now that Otremba is retiring, the GOP views the district as a prime takeover opportunity. GOP presidential nominee John McCain beat Democratic President Barack Obama there in 2008 by 12 percentage points.

Pexsa, a farmer and accountant from Miltona, is running against Republican Tea Party activist Mary Franson and DFLer Amy Hunter.

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