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New conservative GOP chairs to run Capitol sausage factory

Charley Shaw and Steve Perry//November 19, 2010//

New conservative GOP chairs to run Capitol sausage factory

Charley Shaw and Steve Perry//November 19, 2010//

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 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Incoming House Ways & Means chair Mary Liz Holberg fielded questions at a Wednesday morning press conference where 40 new House and Senate committee chairs were announced. Afterward GOP leaders spent the day flying around the state to introduce them. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Last Wednesday, just a day after new Republican legislative majorities unveiled their downsized committee structure, it rained gavels at the Capitol. Incoming caucus leaders Amy Koch and Kurt Zellers handed down a total of 40 chair appointments as a substantial contingent of the anointed stood beaming at their side.

With a few notable exceptions – the exclusion of Rep. Morrie Lanning and Sen. Mike Jungbauer, the selection of Senate short-timers Mike Parry and Joe Gimse – the picks were largely in accord with legislative traditions dictating that seniority and past committee experience shape chair appointments.

In the cases of Lanning, who was in line for the House Taxes gavel, and Jungbauer, the presumptive pick for Senate Transportation, most observers believe the veteran legislators were deemed too moderate in their spending inclinations to suit the increasingly conservative bent of leadership.

Longtime Capitol hands were struck by the way House leaders Kurt Zellers and Matt Dean handled potentially troublesome moderates in their caucus as they head into what’s sure to be a fraught budgetary showdown. One veteran legislative staffer pointed out that five of them – Reps. Jim Abeler, Larry Howes, Denny McNamara, Steve Smith and Dean Urdahl – received gavels they had coveted. “Over time,” noted one lobbyist who is a former legislator, “it’s much better to keep them in the tent rather than outside it, where they can throw grenades at you.”

Zellers said it would still be “several weeks” before committee assignments are completed. In the meantime, here are background sketches of the chairs of the Legislature’s key spending and policy committees.

House Ways and Means: Mary Liz Holberg

Perhaps the most interesting of the House chair picks, Holberg is temperamentally an ironic fit for the chamber’s main finance committee. In the past she’s been widely known as a conservative bomb-thrower on fiscal matters. As one longtime GOP observer puts it, “When she was heading Transportation Finance [during the last Republican House majority], she was always in conflict with people like Ron Erhardt and the other moderates in the caucus. Now she will have to approve a budget, and that means she will have to shield portions of the budget that she probably would be attacking if left to her own devices. As a leader, she can’t be the sniper that she’s been for a long time.” Case in point: Some Republicans are taken aback that Holberg is already talking turkey in public about funding a Vikings stadium – something that would have been unimaginable before she became a chair.

Why did Holberg get the assignment? Despite her reputation as an opponent of state spending in all its guises, she knows the budget better than most of her colleagues (“I don’t agree with Mary Liz about much,” says one House DFL member, “but she’s someone who  always does her homework”), leadership puts great trust in her loyalty, and she is known for running committee proceedings tightly and efficiently.  It helped her cause that her ostensible competition for the slot, former House Finance lead Republican Rep. Mark Buesgens, doesn’t like running committees and didn’t want a gavel.

Senate Finance: Claire Robling

Going into the committee selection process, it was clear the new Senate Republican majority lacked an obvious choice to chair the chamber’s highest fiscal committee. Unlike the House, where Holberg assumes the gavel of Ways and Means after serving as that committee’s lead minority member, the Senate GOP’s elder statesmen (like Steve Dille and Dennis Frederickson) didn’t seek re-election.

The caucus tapped Claire Robling to step up in a session in which lawmakers will tackle an estimated $5.8 billion deficit. While the soft-spoken, soon-to-be fifth term senator from Jordan currently serves on Finance, her areas of focus have been specifically related to higher education spending. One GOP lobbyist noted, however, that caucus leadership wouldn’t have chosen Robling if they didn’t have a great deal of confidence in her ability to do the job.

Robling has a respectable but not elite 83 percent out of 100 percent score with the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota. She has a 60 percent score from the Sierra Club’s North Star chapter, which is a high score for a Republican legislator.

House Taxes: Greg Davids

This pick surprised some insiders. While Davids isn’t a square peg in a round hole – he serves on the committee and possesses the second-highest seniority in the House GOP Caucus – one GOP lobbyist noted that Davids was not the obvious choice. Rep. Morrie Lanning, who is a veteran of several tax conference committees (including the infamous 2005 Krinkie-Pogemiller conference committee that was commemorated by posters billing the affair as the Rumble under the Rotunda) is the experienced incumbent who has focused on tax issues.

While Davids has a conservative voting record, he’s known to harbor a bigger appetite for spending than some Republican colleagues. Among Democrats who were around the last time he held a gavel, Davids is known as a dealmaker. Like other budgetary moderates who have been given gavels, he will likely be hemmed in by committee members who are more conservative. Rep. Linda Runbeck, the former Taxpayers League of Minnesota president appointed to lead the property tax and local tax division, will be a more conservative presence.

Davids is entering his 10th non-consecutive term (he lost his seat for one term from 2007-2008). While in the majority, he chaired the Commerce Committee and later the Agriculture Finance Committee. Local government aid, which figures to be a critical piece of the 2011 bloodletting,  is much less important back home for Davids than for many other rural Republicans.

Senate Taxes: Julianne Ortman

Both Ortman and incoming Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel were rumored to want the Taxes Committee gavel. Some Republicans were disappointed in the job that Ortman did as minority lead on Taxes, and there was also lingering resentment in some corners over her sponsorship of a bill that would have levied a tax on credit card companies that charge high interest rates. But Ortman is close to incoming Majority Leader Amy Koch (Buffalo), and she paid additional dues in the caucus by taking on the sensitive job of chairing the Committee on Committees that vetted and recommended candidates for other chair positions.

House Education Finance: Pat Garofalo

Entering his fourth term, Garofalo is known around the Legislature as one of the most thoughtful conservative voices on K-12 matters – “not a school-basher, but a genuine innovator,” in the words of one former GOP colleague. Known as a pragmatist, he has better relationships with DFLers than many of his caucus mates.

Garofalo hails from a very conservative party of the Twin Cities suburbs. Early in his legislative career, he drew a GOP challenger who had a base of support among local Republicans despite the fact Garofalo had cast conservative votes on guns and social issues. He weathered the storm and has won re-election by strong margins. Garofalo has a 73 percent lifetime ranking from the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

House Education Reform: Sondra Erickson

During her previous tenure in the House (1998-2007), Erickson served as vice-chair of K-12 education policy during the last Republican House majority, and counted as her proudest accomplishment the repeal of the state’s Profile of Learning standards. An advocate of local control, she was also known to fulminate against federal No Child Left Behind standards. Erickson is more strident and more doctrinaire than her budget committee counterpart in the House, Pat Garofalo. “She’s a pedagogue,” notes one House source, “and she is always ready to teach everybody what’s what.” Her committee will likely be the venue where legislators resurrect the bill that allows alternative pathways to teacher licensure. The measure has been a priority of the Obama administration. The statewide teacher’s union fiercely opposed the proposal last spring.

Senate Education Budget & Policy: Gen Olson

There were rumblings early in the year that Olson was among the group of long-entrenched GOP moderates in the Senate who were getting a push toward the door. Sens. Dennis Frederickson and Pat Pariseau took the hint and announced their retirement; Olson dealt with the pressures by announcing that her current two-year term – her ninth in a Senate tenure that began in 1983 – would be her last. She thus takes up a critical gavel as a lame duck.

Olson has a rather lonely role in representing the traditionalists in the caucus, a fact that was underscored when she ran for Senate president after the election and lost to Michelle Fischbach. Olson has a long background on Senate K-12 education committees and played a key role in abolishing the State Board of Education. She memorably broke down in tears in 2005 when the DFL-controlled Senate Education Committee voted against confirming controversial Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke. Insiders say they expect her to be a calming presence on a flashpoint committee in 2011.

House HHS Finance: Jim Abeler

In terms of seniority and committee experience, Abeler was the obvious choice. Some onlookers nonetheless wondered whether the one-time Override Six apostate would really get the post in a new GOP order that stresses conservative bona fides and caucus loyalty. But as one member of the House DFL caucus puts it, “There was just nobody else who could do it. Matt [Dean] could have handled it, but not when he’s sitting in the majority leader’s seat.”

Abeler worked overtime to do penance for past sins in the 2009-10 Legislature. His was one of the loudest GOP voices of opposition to the Obama health care law near the end of the 2010 session; Abeler railed that it was pure folly to hitch the state’s future to a law that was sure to be repealed.

House HHS Reform: Steve Gottwalt

Gottwalt is one of only two third-term House Republicans to get a gavel. In handing him the health policy committee, leadership is adding a sharper definition to Gottwalt’s profile as a rising star. And it has also prompted some observers to view him as a conservative counterpart to the more moderate and idiosyncratic Abeler on Health and Human Services Finance. Gottwalt proved to be a highly capable operator when he first arrived in St. Paul and persuaded DFLers to include his proposal to place restrictions on prescription drugs sold over the Internet in the health and human services omnibus bill. Since then he has developed a strong presence on the House floor in advocating market-based health care reforms.

Senate HHS Budget & Policy: David Hann

Hann has received high marks from health care lobbyists for his work as the lead Republican on the Senate health care policy committee. Now the Gustavus Adolphus and University of Chicago-educated businessman takes the reins of both policy and finance components of health care. Hann is no mere policy wonk. He was a frequent spokesman for the caucus alongside Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem in recent sessions. And he impressed many Republicans with his unexpectedly strong campaign for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement earlier this year.

House Transportation Policy & Finance: Mike Beard

Beard’s knowledge of transportation is very broad. He gets high marks for his knowledge of road-and-bridge and freight rail issues. He has aviation bona fides as a pilot, and he’s very interested in airport oversight. But as one Democrat puts it, “He’s not really a transit guy.” Beard represents a county that opted not to join the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), which was formed in 2008 by metropolitan counties that were authorized by the Legislature to increase their local sales tax to pay for transit. Despite repudiating CTIB, Beard’s suburban district is concerned with congestion and is trying to enhance transit service into the Twin Cities. Getting the Transportation gavel represents a last act in the political redemption of Beard, who angered many of his GOP colleagues in 2005 by sponsoring a 5-cent per gallon gas tax increase backed by the Association of Minnesota Counties. Beard relented on the transportation funding proposal, and later voted against both the 2008 transportation funding bill and the override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto.

Senate Transportation Budget & Policy: Joe Gimse

Transportation lobbyists are still getting used to the reality that the caucus leadership passed over Mike Jungbauer for transportation chairman. Instead, second-term Sen.  Joe Gimse of Willmar got the gavel. Gimse served on both the transportation policy and finance committees as a freshman but didn’t take on much responsibility, according to observers who follow the committee. Gimse’s natural interest as a greater Minnesota legislator is roads and bridges. Because he has little experience with transit, lobbyists are watching to see if a transit subcommittee gets appointed at a time when the Central Corridor is being built and the Southwest Corridor is in the planning stages.

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