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Senate Democrats name committee chairs

Charley Shaw and Mike Mullen//November 16, 2012

Senate Democrats name committee chairs

Charley Shaw and Mike Mullen//November 16, 2012

Sen. Kathy Sheran will be chairwoman of the Health, Human Services and Housing policy committee. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Sheran and Lourey get powerful HHS gavels

The Senate DFL has formalized its committee structure and appointed the chairs who will direct the flow of legislation in 2013.

While the caucus has a bench of veteran senators who were committee leaders when Democrats last held the majority in the 2010 legislative session, the retirements and deaths of other long-serving members over the past two years has led to a new generation joining the ranks of committee chairs.
Caucus leaders adhered to their seniority-based system for handing out gavels. The four third-termers who were first sworn in in 2007 were the last ones to make the cut. That class consists of Sens. Ron Latz (Judiciary), Tony Lourey (Health and Human Services finance division), Kathy Sheran (Health, Human Services and Housing policy committee) and Patricia Torres Ray (K-12 Education policy committee).

Many in the next level of seniority, who mostly were first sworn in 2003, are also new to the chairmanship ranks. They are Sens. Scott Dibble (Transportation Policy and Finance Division), Tom Saxhaug (State Departments and Veterans Finance Division), Dan Sparks (Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development) and Terri Bonoff (Higher Education and Workforce Policy and Finance Division).

Sen. Katie Sieben, who was elected assistant majority leader and is entering her second Senate term after serving one term in the House, was given a subcommittee chair on elections.

The Taxes and Finance chairs were chosen by caucus-wide balloting a couple of days after the election. Finance chairman Dick Cohen was returned to the Finance chairmanship he held for several sessions before the Senate lost the majority in the 2010 election. And following former Taxes chairman Tom Bakk’s selection as majority leader, Sen. Rod Skoe won that gavel after serving on the committee since 2003 and chairing its property tax division.

A new taxes subcommittee, the Tax Reform Division, will be chaired by Sen. Ann Rest. Rest ran for the Taxes chairmanship, which is an elected position in the Senate, losing that contest to Skoe. But Rest’s panel will likely prove more than a consolation prize: Tax policy reform is expected to be a major component of Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2014-2015 budget proposal.

One of the bigger changes from the last time DFLers were in control of the Senate involves the role of Sen. LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer, who will chair the Capital Investment Committee. Stumpf, the caucus’s senior member, had previously chaired the K-12 Education Finance Committee. In his new role, he succeeds retiring Sen. Keith Langseth as the point man on the bonding bill. Greater Minnesota interests wanted a non-metro person to lead Capital Investment in the Senate, in part to balance the expected reappointment of St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman to head the House Capital Investment Committee.
The incoming K-12 Finance chair, Sen. Chuck Wiger, previously chaired the education policy committee in 2007-08. One central drama concerning the education appointments revolved around whether Bonoff — who has crossed the teachers union Education Minnesota over her advocacy of changes to teacher policy — would be given a chair. Instead, the west-suburban senator was given a position of influence in the form of a finance committee, the Higher Education and Workforce Development Division.

One of the bigger showdowns in the chair races concerned the Health and Human Services Finance Division, a chairmanship that was left open due to the retirement of long-time chair Linda Berglin. Sen. John Marty, who is one of the most senior members of the caucus, wanted to chair HHS, and his credentials included prior experience chairing the Health policy committee. But his bid drew opposition from Minnesota’s health care industry; Marty has been a vocal proponent of a state-sponsored, single-payer health care system.

In the end, Lourey received the gavel. The senator from Kerrick — whose mother, Becky, was once an HHS policy chair — has served on health committees since he was first sworn in in 2007.
Marty’s consolation prize is the Environment and Energy policy committee, and environmentalists are happy to have him installed at the head of the committee table. Marty previously chaired the Environment and Natural Resources Committee before he was moved in 2007 to Health policy.

Marty’s selection as environment chair bumped aside Saxhaug, who had also been interested in the post. Saxhaug, of Grand Rapids, had previously chaired subcommittees on forestry and game and fish. In getting the State Departments and Veterans Division, however, Saxhaug finds himself with an important role in next session’s budget debates. Sen. David Tomassoni will chair the Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee. Tomassoni’s committee is a recreation of the so-called “Jobs, Hogs and Frogs committee once chaired by the late Sen. Dallas Sams.

Dibble’s Transportation committee will include both policy and finance duties. In a caucus where greater Minnesota boasts a formidable presence in top positions, Dibble is a Minneapolitan who will have to navigate the perennial tensions between the Twin Cities (which pushes for transit) and greater Minnesota (which wants funding for roads and bridges).

The agriculture committee was the subject of much mystery before Sparks was picked for the job. The retirement of Sen. Jim Vickerman in 2010, the death of Sen. Gary Kubly in March and the elevation of Skoe to Taxes left the Ag committee without a natural heir. Although two senators-elect, Kent Eken and Lyle Koenen, bring extensive ag experience from their tenures in the House, they didn’t clear the Senate’s seniority threshold.

Senate DFLers also faced a void at the top of the Commerce Committee. Sen. Linda Scheid, who was formerly Commerce chair, died from cancer in 2011. Sen. Jim Metzen, who was previously head of a business and jobs policy committee before 2011, will take over that gavel.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, who was previously chair of the Higher Education finance committee, will chair the State and Local Government policy committee. Pappas will split her responsibilities as a committee chair and Senate president.

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