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There were few surprises when the Minnesota House GOP released committee rosters last week. Legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, landed in spots where they've sat before, or - in the case of new lawmakers - where they have accrued relevant experience in their professional and personal lives.

House GOP shapes key committees for budget battle

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

House Ways and Means Committee chair Mary Liz Holberg (center) will be at the eye of the budget-cutting storm in 2011. (Staff file photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

There were few surprises when the Minnesota House GOP released committee rosters last week. Legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, landed in spots where they’ve sat before, or – in the case of new lawmakers – where they have accrued relevant experience in their professional and personal lives.

But membership makeup in the chamber’s two most powerful committees – Ways and Means and Taxes – can dictate the shape of the spending measures undertaken to slay the $6.2 billion budget deficit as well as the outlines of the 2012 campaign season, when members in competitive swing districts could have to answer for tough budget votes on the campaign trail.

Ways and Means beefs up

The Ways and Means Committee is, as usual, populated entirely by Capitol veterans. As longtime GOP House operative Gregg Peppin puts it, “People who have to worry about re-election need not apply.” These are members in safe districts who leadership believes to have the experience and resolve necessary to balance a budget without raising revenue.

That sensibility is epitomized by chair Mary Liz Holberg, known around the Capitol as a “sharp and sometimes alarmingly tough” legislator, in the words of one lobbyist. The Lakeville representative held the lead Republican slot in the DFL-controlled House, so her upgrade to chair after the power flips seems natural, but some were wary of the decision. In the past, Holberg has advocated for steep cuts to many budget sectors.

“You’re going to need somebody who has cut those budgets,” Peppin said. “It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to have to happen. Holberg can do that.” Her hard-line ways will be bolstered by the presence of two of her longtime conservative allies in the caucus, Mark Buesgens and Tom Hackbarth. They will be joined by a cast of more moderate Republicans, several of whom chair their own respective finance committees – including K-12 Finance head Pat Garofalo, Ag policy and finance chair Rod Hamilton, and Morrie Lanning, who belatedly received the gavel in State Government Finance after Buesgens stepped down from the post recently.

Rep. Keith Downey will sit next to Holberg in the vice chair position, and despite his relatively new status in the Legislature (the Edina rep is entering his second term) and the fact that he is also a suburbanite, he is widely considered a wise pick. Downey is a rising star in the party, and has the savvy and business smarts to handle the intricacies of the complicated budget, lobbyists say. Outside of the Capitol, Downey is a partner in a consulting firm, and has spent years helping state, county and local governments overhaul their practices and operate more efficiently.

Republicans on the committee hold a 20-14 edge over House DFLers, most of whom are fairly predictable additions to the team. Rep. Lyndon Carlson, with 20 terms and the former chairmanship of the House Finance committee under his belt, will take the lead DFL role, and is joined by other former committee heads in the DFL-controlled House, including HHS finance chief Tom Huntley (HHS finance), Mindy Greiling (K-12) education and Gene Pelowski (state government operations).

While the DFL certainly has some of its longest serving and top members represented on the panel, lobbyist and former DFL House Speaker Bob Vanasek said Republicans on the committee will not be trumped in terms of experience. The Republican roster includes past chairs of finance divisions and some of the caucus’s  sharpest members, Vanasek noted. “Republicans will be matching Democrats in terms of experience on that committee, despite just getting out of the minority,” he said. “They won’t be outdone there.”

Tax panel mixes old and new

Given the large proportion of GOP freshmen at the Capitol following a Republican wave election, lobbyists say it’s not surprising to see new members on the highly coveted tax panel – though it’s unusual. The committee sees four new-to-the-Capitol Republicans joining its ranks, including attorney Doug Wardlow, accountant Pam Myhra, former Mora Mayor Roger Crawford and teacher Kurt Bills.

Of the newcomers, Peppin said, “These are people that expressed an interest and hope to get into the minutiae of tax policy. You want people who want to be on the tax committee because they want to bite off a piece of that apple and make it their own.”

Representatives Sondra Erickson and Linda Runbeck are returning to the Capitol after years away, but Runbeck is hardly a novice in tax matters. She served six prior terms in the Legislature, and held a seat on the Senate Taxes Committee. She is also the former head of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota, a leading anti-tax voice of the past decade.

In terms of geography, the committee is stacked with suburbanites, who outnumber greater Minnesota reps by an 11-6 margin. Vanasek thinks there is a political calculus involved: Suburban areas are less dependent on the state aid to cities and counties that the committee is expected to target for major cuts in 2011. New member Crawford, who was the former mayor of Mora, could emerge as the chief devil’s advocate on local government aid, lobbyists say.

But the high number of new suburban legislators could backfire on Republicans, said DFL political analyst Darin Broton. “They are putting some vulnerable suburban freshman on a committee where hard choices will have to be made,” he said. “If you put them on a committee like Taxes, there are some votes that could come back to haunt them in 2012.”

Despite its suburban hue, the committee is chaired by a rural legislator, Greg Davids of Preston. Known as one of the caucus’s more fiscally moderate members, Davids also has a track record as a dealmaker. In his old job as head of the House commerce and jobs panel in the early part of the decade, Davids worked closely with the DFL lead on the committee, former Rep. Matt Entenza, according to John Knapp, a GOP lobbyist with Winthrop and Weinstine.  He expects Davids will work with former DFL House Taxes chair Ann Lenczewski in a similar fashion.

Davids will “aggressively advocate for the interests of greater Minnesota,” Peppin said. But the suburban members can rest assured with Eden Prairie Rep. Jenifer Loon at his side as vice chair, he added: “She will ask the tough questions.”

Republicans hold a 17-12 edge over DFLers on the panel. The makeup of the committee, as Vanasek noted, is quite conservative on the Republican side, and equally liberal on the Democrat side. “Assuming that [DFL Gov.-elect Mark Dayton] follows through with the position he took on taxing the rich during the campaign,” he said, “it will likely mean he will have some vigorous defenders of that proposal in the DFL members of the tax committee.”

Lenczewski is joined by other veteran and finance-savvy DFLers, including Tony Sertich, Paul Marquart, Tom Rukavina and Melissa Hortman.

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