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When members of the new House Republican majority met last weekend to pick their top two leaders, they selected a slate dominated by the party's suburban strongholds: Speaker-designate Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove and soon-to-be Majority Leader Matt Dean of Dellwood.

Committee buzz: House GOP tries to juggle geography, seniority

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Incoming Majority Leader Matt Dean (left) will have to help decide which committee assignments go to Reps. Jim Abeler (center) and Steve Gottwalt. (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

New committee lineup could be announced as early as next week

When members of the new House Republican majority met last weekend to pick their top two leaders, they selected a slate dominated by the party’s suburban strongholds: Speaker-designate Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove and soon-to-be Majority Leader Matt Dean of Dellwood.

Now the pair is busy at work in shaping and populating the legislative committees they will control, and it’s widely expected that they will try to show a lot of love to the ranks of greater Minnesota GOP legislators in the process.

“I’m sure part of the internal discussion has been about the leaders being from the metro area,” said one former GOP House staffer. “The greater Minnesota members are saying: ‘If we’re not going to have leadership, we’d like to have gavels.'”

Seniority and geography will both figure heavily in the committee calculus. But despite the challenges, Republicans aren’t wasting any time in drawing up their blueprints for 2011. Zellers and newly elected Senate Majority Leader Sen. Amy Koch of Buffalo met on Monday to discuss ways to align committees between the two chambers. A House GOP staffer said leadership expects to have a new list of committees configured by late this week or early next week.

The House currently has 36 panels, ranging from the powerful Finance Committee to the more obscure Licensing Division of the Health and Human Services Committee. House and Senate Republicans have vowed to reduce the number of committees.

Some committee cuts can already be safely predicted.

The arrangement concocted by the previous DFL majority to hand gavels to longtime incumbents Lyndon Carlson and Loren Solberg, which involved creating a Finance Committee that was distinct from the Ways and Means Committee, will almost certainly be done away with.

But it’s uncertain how the new GOP leadership will structure the top finance committee and lower budget divisions. When the Republicans last controlled the House, they had a Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Jim Knoblach, but no Finance Committee. Currently, Mary Liz Holberg, from suburban Lakeville, is the lead Republican on Ways and Means and has been mentioned as a possible chair. Mark Buesgens of Jordan is the lead Republican on Finance and was previously Education policy chairman when Republicans last held the majority. Buesgens said he doesn’t have his sights set on a particular committee this time around.

“Que sera, sera,” Buesgens said.

The situation in 2010 is markedly different from the one that existed in 2006, when the House DFL wrested control from Republicans. There were many long-tenured Democrats clamoring for gavels then; this year the GOP ranks are dominated by more junior members.

All told, there are 22 Republicans in the 72-member caucus that have been in the House for four terms or more. They are the only members who were around when the GOP last held the majority.

Rep. Steve Smith of Mound, who was elected last week to an 11th term, is the most senior member of the caucus. Smith, a lawyer who chaired the House Public Safety and Finance Committee when the Republicans last held the majority, said he’d like his old job back.

“I want to get back to chairman of public safety, reconfigured as it was,” said Smith. (The post-’06 DFL majority had split the policy and finance areas into separate public safety committees.)

Other Republicans who are long on the seniority rolls include Rep. Greg Davids, who will be serving his 10th non-consecutive term. Reps. Bruce Anderson and Bob Gunther are entering their ninth terms. There are three eight termers: Tom Hackbarth of Cedar, Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls and Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake.

The desire to have rural legislators placed in influential roles bodes well for the committee prospects of Gunther, the Fairmont Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Dean for majority leader, and Davids, of Preston. Davids served most recently on the Taxes Committee and while in the majority was chairman of agriculture finance and commerce committees.

Gunther, who was an assistant minority leader last session, was chairman of the housing and economic development committee when his party was last in the majority. Even if Gunther should want to return to his old economic development post, his fellow greater Minnesota colleagues will want him to assume an elite post. (For his part, Gunther told Capitol Report that he’s “considering” a bid for an assistant majority leader spot.)

But the size of the budget deficit and the partisan fights that will play out in budget negotiations make the top fiscal committees unappealing to some senior members.

“There are certain committees I won’t ask for – [Ways and Means] and Taxes,” Nornes said.

Instead Nornes is interested in the higher education finance committee, which he chaired when the Republicans held the majority.

In addition to seniority and geography, policy experience will figure in the equation for selecting chairs. For example, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, served last session as the lead Republican on the K-12 Education Finance Committee. He said it would be his “Sports Center fantasy” to be named chair, although he added diplomatically that he’s not assuming he’ll get the gavel.

“It’s no secret that my passion is for education reform,” Garofalo said.

But there are some influential committees on which no returning Republican has previously held the lead minority role.

The House Taxes Committee, for example, has lost lead Republican Laura Brod as well as Paul Kohls. Davids and Morrie Lanning, a moderate from Moorhead who has served on the committee, would provide the greater Minnesota balance to the suburban leadership on one of the Legislature’s most influential committees. Some observers have noted that Lanning, a former Moorhead mayor, might not want the job of cutting aids and credits to local governments that the Taxes Committee will likely be called upon to pass in solving the estimated $5.8 billion budget shortfall. But Lanning told Capitol Report he is interested in the Taxes Committee.

With such a young caucus, leadership could elevate some of its younger members to the head of prominent committees in an effort to groom them for future leadership roles. That approach was employed at times by the last speaker, DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher. She tapped Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, who will be the House minority leader next year, to lead the Health and Human Services policy committee at the start of his third term.

There’s been buzz that second-term Rep. Keith Downey of Edina could get the nod for Taxes. Downey, a management consultant, took the lead last year on a slate of tax incentives to spur business activity. One Republican-leaning lobbyist said that Downey is a future prospect for leadership and would get valuable experience as Taxes chairman. However, since Downey won in a swing district by 587 votes, he might be vulnerable come election time if he’s seen as a ringleader on his party’s tax policy.

“Generally speaking,” one lobbyist said, “they don’t send someone into taxes who has had two close elections.”

Picking who gets the gavel on health care finance may prove particularly fraught. The outspoken Jim Abeler of Anoka has the pedigree and knowledge to handle complex health care negotiations. But he also has the reputation of being a maverick and a moderate at times, which could prove a frustration to leadership. Some speculate that he could be paired with a vice-chair like Rep. Steve Gottwalt of St. Cloud, who is more conservative but has less seniority.

One health care lobbyist pointed out that such an arrangement would mirror the dynamics of GOP Chair Fran Bradley’s tenure during the last Republican House majority, when Vice-Chair Tim Wilkin played the role of conservative “bad cop” in keeping Bradley from striking moderating stances.  Given the outsized budgetary role that cuts to health care will likely play in the next session, there are lingering questions for some Republicans as to whether Abeler is the right guy to lead the charge.

“Putting Abeler up there, it’s a risk,” the health care lobbyist said.

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