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Zellers: Making government ‘live within its means’ is job one

Paul Demko//November 10, 2010

Zellers: Making government ‘live within its means’ is job one

Paul Demko//November 10, 2010

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
House Speaker Kurt Zellers beamed from the podium on election night as his caucus racked up a 25-seat gain. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Kurt Zellers will wield the speaker’s gavel when the state House opens for business in January. The five-term Maple Grove Republican faced no opposition from within his caucus for the second most powerful post in the state.

After leading the minority caucus for one legislative session, Zellers saw the GOP pick up 25 seats and establish a 10-seat majority. On election night, he stood on stage surrounded by a throng of jubilant GOP winners and promised immediate action to spur job growth in the state. “This is a very important and critical time in our state’s landscape right now,” Zellers said. “We’re going to get to work right away.”

That work has already proven fast and furious with less than two months left before the Legislature convenes in January. During a hectic first transition week, Zellers took time to speak with Capitol Report about the election, preparations for running the House and the GOP’s legislative agenda. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Capitol Report: What was your pitch to your GOP colleagues as to why you were the right person to lead the majority?

Kurt Zellers: A lot of the groundwork that we’ve laid was already done late last spring. Shortly after taking over, I made a point to go out and start recruiting candidates literally the very next day, making phone calls and laying out what I thought our message should be, talking about jobs and the economy and living within our means as a state government just like families and businesses in the state do. I think that, not only did I stay on that message, but we delivered with the candidates we went out and got. We’ve got candidates that, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, are going to make the Legislature a better place because they’re there.

Capitol Report: The $5.8 billion budget shortfall clearly is going to be the biggest issue in the next legislative session. Do Republicans expect to eliminate that shortfall entirely with cuts as gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer – and most GOP candidates on the campaign trail – have suggested?

Zellers: I don’t sit down at the kitchen table with my wife and figure out how many bills we have for food and a mortgage and the kids’ clothes and telephones and everything, and decide okay we have $2,500 worth of bills and then write a $3,000 check. Where you get that supposed deficit is if you want to spend 17 percent more. If you only spend 7 to 8 percent [more] – which is a lot of money to a lot of families and it’s a huge increase for most business owners across the state – we’re going to spend about $33 billion. Most Minnesotans, especially business owners across the state, think we should just spend what we take in.

Capitol Report: So does that mean any tax increases are off the table as far as the GOP is concerned?

Zellers: I don’t think it’s as far as we’re concerned. I think it’s as far as the taxpayers of Minnesota are concerned. My neighbor next door, who’s had his wages cut 40 percent over the last two years, said to me, we don’t go to the movies anymore. We go to Redbox. We go get a movie at Redbox and popcorn at Target. We can’t afford to go to the theater anymore. We still watch movies as a family, but we’re just not spending $30 at a movie theater.

It’s not us as a caucus majority saying that tax increases are a bad idea in the economy we’re in. It’s the taxpayers of the state, the businessmen and women of the state, the average voter saying we don’t have it to give to the government, we barely have enough for ourselves. Why don’t we just stick with what we’ve got, spend what we have, not spend anything more?

Capitol Report: As you know, Mark Dayton has proposed closing the biggest chunk of the budget shortfall with an income tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents. Presuming that he does become governor, there’s clearly going to be a standoff there. How do you see finding any common ground between those two stances on the budget?

Zellers: This is hypothetical. I still think that the recount process absolutely needs to be followed to the letter of the law and that at the end of the day my friend Tom Emmer still has a chance at being governor.

But under a hypothetical, I think you start off with the things we agree on. Sen. Dayton – I listened very closely to what he said on the campaign trail. He said that no matter who has a good idea, no matter where it comes from, if it’s an idea that brings jobs back to Minnesota or it helps our economy pick up, he would be in favor of it. We’re going to start there. I think it’s a great piece of common ground to start on. If we do that, some of the rest of the stuff that we disagree on might be a lot easier to get beyond.

Capitol Report: Taking over the majority,  there’s quite a few logistical things that you guys need to take care of between now and January 3. Talk a little bit about some of the things that need to happen so that you’re ready to lead when the Legislature opens.

Zellers: First thing Monday morning, we met with [Senate Majority Leader Amy] Koch and [Senate Deputy Majority Leader Geoff] Michel, and we sat down and looked at what I think is probably going to be one of the most important, trend-setting parts of this session, which is lining up those committees together, so that the House and the Senate doesn’t look like two plates of spaghetti and people are trying to follow their noodle through the mess.

We’re going to line those committees up. We may have a few more policy committees in the House, because we get a little bit more stuff over there, but particularly line up those finance committees. That’s one of our first and foremost jobs. What we promised the voters, what we campaigned on, was reducing the size of government and making it work more efficient, just like business owners. Mapping out eight weeks is a pretty daunting task. When you look at that in weeks and days it gets very scary, because it’s a very short amount of time. We’ll do that first, lay out a committee structure, then go to chairmen, then start filling our members’ requests.

Capitol Report: The budget clearly is going to be issue number one. What else is going to be on the agenda when you convene in January?

Zellers: This probably isn’t going to show up on the front page of any publications or on the 10 o’clock news, but the regulatory relief and streamlining of government for businesses in this state is one of the first things we’re going to do coming out of the gate.

What we heard from business owners all across the state was we don’t know what government’s going to do to us so we’re just waiting. We’re really not going to expand just yet until we know if there’s going to be cap and trade. What are the implications of the federal health care bill? I still don’t think we’ve got all the kinks worked out of that yet. What we want to do is send a strong message to the businesswomen and men of Minnesota:  We’ve heard what you asked for. We’re going to start off with regulatory relief, looking at our permitting process, our regulation process, so that we’re not duplicating something that the federal government or county government is doing twice or three times over.

Capitol Report: Do you expect there to be a bonding bill next year?

Zellers: I don’t know that just yet. Whether it’s Gov. Dayton or Gov. Emmer, I think it’s a little premature for us to say that. The one thing I would be a little cautious about is what we found last spring when we started looking at [the bonding bill]. We had a lot of un-let bonds last spring in a lot of projects. You have to tie up the cash for that debt service even if the bonds haven’t been let that day or that week or that month.

So I think we have to look first and foremost, before we even go down that road, at how many projects are approved but not spent and see how much debt service we’re carrying. We don’t have a lot of limit left on the state’s credit card. I think it’s awfully dangerous to go out and start borrowing more money. I think it’s a better idea to help the private economy pick up.

Capitol Report: Obviously the governor’s race is not settled. How does that affect your ability to prepare for the upcoming legislative session?

Zellers: We have to put together our budget. We have to put together some targets and priorities from our perspective, and where we agree or disagree with whoever the governor is. We’re going to move forward with that process. The February forecast is a big part of our budgetary process, but we can have some ideas and some outlines prepared for whenever the budget forecast is announced and then also when the governor’s races has been decided.

Capitol Report: You said on Minnesota Public Radio that you didn’t think it would be appropriate for the Legislature to push an aggressive agenda forward if the governor’s race remains in dispute and Gov. Pawlenty remains in office. Is that an accurate encapsulation of your views of what would be proper if we find ourselves in that situation?

Zellers: A lot of it would depend on the situations, how the recount is going, if there’s going to be lawsuits versus whether we’re still in the challenge stage of this ballot versus that ballot. But we absolutely want to be respectful to either Gov. Dayton or Gov. Emmer  in allowing them to have what would be their budget priorities, what would their legislative priorities. We want to be respectful to them, but again realizing that we do have a responsibility, a constitutional responsibility, but also a responsibility to the taxpayers of the state.

The folks that are paying the bills want to know what we’re going to be spending the money on. We’re going to have a very aggressive schedule in terms of when we start our committees, what their deadlines will be and when we‘d like to finish up the budgetary process. We’ll be respectful, but based on what we heard from the voters, they want us to get in there and get our work done, get the economy going again and then go back home. We don’t have to spend six months at the Capitol. That’s not necessary.

Capitol Report: A Vikings stadium – do you expect any action on that front in this coming legislative session?

Zellers: We need to take care of first things first, which is making sure the budget’s balanced. It’s not just about bringing jobs back or finding new jobs. It’s about making sure that those Minnesota business owners who are  here – who have done a fantastic job, some of the best Fortune 500 companies in the world are here – that they want to expand here in Minnesota, not expand someplace else. Those are our number one priorities.

But this is the 50th year of the Vikings. As a kid who ran around in a Fran Tarkenton jersey saying he was going to be an NFL quarterback, I want to do whatever we can to be able to make sure the Vikings don’t leave Minnesota. They are a part of our cultural heritage and our history. They’ve been making us cry, scream, bleed from the eyes for decades now. But I think it will absolutely have to be tied to the game. It has to be a creative solution. The state just doesn’t have the money to write a check to whoever the owners are.

It’s not going to be something you’re going to see in the first two months at the Capitol. If it happens it will be later on in the session.

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