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Minnesota Senate: Out with the old

Briana Bierschbach//March 21, 2012

Minnesota Senate: Out with the old

Briana Bierschbach//March 21, 2012

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The upper chamber is seeing a generational transformation — and redistricting is sure to bring more new blood to both caucuses

Members of the 88th Minnesota Senate sworn in next January will have roughly 40 percent fewer years of cumulative service than the Senate that gaveled out in May 2010.

The Senate of 2009-10 concluded its business a little less than two years ago with 747 years of accumulated service — and institutional memory — but the body has undergone radical changes in the composition of both its party caucuses since then. According to an analysis of Senate service time by Capitol Report, there will be, at most, 431 years of cumulative experience in the body at the start of the 2013-14 Legislature. That figure represents a 43 percent decline in two and a half years’ time.

There are a number of reasons for the precipitous drop. Redistricting years like 2012 always bring an unusually large contingent of freshmen into the equation by virtue of the open districts that new maps produce, as well as the inflated number of retirements that usually follow the redrawing of district lines.

But this year that redistricting effect will come on the heels of an unprecedented 2010 wave election that brought 60 new legislators to the Capitol, the vast majority of them first-time members.

The new maps have also drawn into the mix a handful of incumbent matchups that will pit veteran lawmakers against some of the Legislature’s newest members. All told, six senators will face another incumbent in either upcoming endorsement battles or the November election. Even before redistricting, the chamber lost some of its most seasoned legislators to Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration and to jobs outside the Legislature. Their ranks include former Sens. Linda Berglin, Larry Pogemiller and Ellen Anderson, who together had served nearly 80 years in the chamber.

DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said their loss represents a massive brain drain from the chamber, since the trio took with them decades of experience on issues such as local government aid, education, human services and energy. The lack of government experience in the Senate has also been highlighted by an unusually high amount of dysfunction in the chamber this session, DFLers say.

“They have their perceptions about the way things should be,” Bakk said of the freshman-heavy GOP majority, “and institutional people don’t matter.”

Bakk pointed to a Tuesday news conference in which a handful of Republican senators, mostly freshmen, called on GOP leaders to take a floor vote on a contentious “right-to-work” constitutional amendment. According to Bakk, the GOP lawmakers’ push against their own leadership was only encouraged by a move to allow the bill to skip over the Jobs and Economic Growth Committee, where it was originally set to be heard, and sent to the Judiciary Committee.

“If you keep handing this group everything they ask for,” Bakk said, “someday when you tell them, ‘This is what you have to do,’ they are not going to follow you.”

Others say an influx of fresh faces has been good for the Senate.

“I think this year you saw a lot of freshmen come from varied backgrounds, and I think that is good and I think that’s healthy,” freshman Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said. “You still seek out people who have been around, but it’s good to have new, fresh people who will challenge the status quo and also look at the situation a little differently.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said he agrees. He has been tasked with leading the young caucus this session and knows it will only get younger next year.

“I think the length and breadth of information that our new members have brought to the Senate is healthy,” Senjem said. “They bring more of a Main Street perspective instead of an institutional perspective, and I think that’s very valuable as we look at the issues of the day. Everything that has happened relative to past history, let’s just start questioning that. And I think our new members have helped us to go down that road.”

Before the start of the next biennium, 10 more senators are set to retire, and the chamber lost DFL Sen. Gary Kubly, who served for nearly 10 years before he died this month. Republican Sen. Gen Olson, who chairs the chamber’s Education Committee, also plans to retire after this year, taking her 30 years of legislative experience with her. And DFL Sen. Keith Langseth, a 32-year Senate veteran and former Capital Investment Committee chairman, will be stepping down as well.

“There are days that I think if I knew when we were going to be ending, I’d probably be counting the days,” she said. “There are times when you wonder why you subject yourself to this, and there are other times when I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

She says she’s not too concerned about finding people to take her place as the Senate Republican lead on education finance. “There always will be someone there to take someone else’s place,” she said. “People rise to the occasion. And who knows what the next election will bring?”

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