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A11-1052 In re McCormick (Original Jurisdiction)

And the gavel goes to …

Republicans need to win seven new seats to regain majority control of the state House of Representatives from Democrats, and upbeat campaign activists think the conservative ticket has a good chance in at least twice that number of districts.

Should they succeed, the GOP caucus would be afforded a brief celebratory honeymoon period. After that, the conservative body would have to transition into governing mode, putting the thrill of the campaign trail aside and focusing on the admittedly less sexy task of determining who knows his or her way around a spreadsheet.

A dozen incumbent legislators are retiring or seeking another office rather than running for re-election this year, including a number of high-ranking Democrats. But the exodus is set to hit Republicans particularly hard, especially with regards to the state’s pocketbook. The GOP committee leaders on the financial panels for health and human services, education and transportation — which, combined, determine the bulk of the state’s biennial budget — are all due to retire after this year, as is Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, the Republican leader and former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The list of notable retirees also includes unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, a former House Speaker who might have been in line for a leadership role in a Republican majority.

Regardless of their success or failure in this year’s election, the inevitable changeover poses a challenge to the caucus, which must produce a new generation of budget mavens between now and the opening gavel on January 6. That could prove a daunting assignment for the party, according to some Capitol insiders, several of whom said the GOP has a “weak bench” compared to the DFL, where a number of lawmakers have accumulated decades of committee experience.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt is unfazed by the prospect of locating the next crop of Republican issue leaders. Daudt said, more than once, that his main focus is on the many toss-up contests in this November’s election, but acknowledged the pressing need to assemble a new team of budget officers.  As he goes about assessing possible replacements, Daudt said he would look for a combination of passion, experience and “real world experience” gained in the private sector.

“I think we’re going to have a team that’s going to fit in really well in the committee structure,” Daudt said. “I’m kind of look forward to having those problems.”

Laying the groundwork

Several of the outgoing Republican leaders said they had begun to lay the groundwork for their exit during the 2014 session. In Holberg’s case, that often meant deferring to the minority leads on various committee when the Ways and Means Committee discussed those topics, with Holberg reminding colleagues that she “wouldn’t be here next year.” Holberg, who is running for a seat on the Dakota County Board of Commissioners, is at peace with that fact, but some lobbyists and observers are still coming to terms with it. Many, including some left-leaning Capitol figures, had taken comfort in Holberg’s calm and fair approach to committee deliberations, and appreciated her attention to detail.

“She was clearly the one member of that caucus that really focused on those broad budget issues,” one sources said. “Everybody deferred to [Holberg] so much.”

Holberg won election to the Legislature in 1998, joined the lower chamber on the same day as Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who has also chosen to retire after eight consecutive terms. (Abeler ran for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, but lost to Mike McFadden in both the endorsement and primary contests.) Abeler, a chiropractor by trade, rose to the top of the caucus in the financial side of health and human services, chairing that committee during the GOP’s recent stint in the majority.

HHS experts said the impact of Abeler’s exit will be compounded by the retirement of Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who chaired the Health and Human Services Finance Committee for a total of six years. Abeler agreed, saying the breadth an complexity of the state’s health budget make for a steep learning curve, adding that it takes years to fully understand.

“It’s very complicated,” Abeler said. “Those people who talk about term limits [for legislators] haven’t talked about this niche.’”

Two other committee vacancies will also require lawmakers willing to immerse themselves in complicated budget formulas. Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, minority leader on the House Education Finance Committee for the past two years, is leaving the House after just two terms, and Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, a former chairman and GOP lead on the House Transportation Finance Committee, is retiring after a dozen years in the Capitol.

Beard said comprehending the transportation budget involves more than holding a position on funding for roads and bridges versus light rail projects. The right person for the job, he posited, would have extensive knowledge of state geography and regional economic factors, and an understanding of how alternativee transportation modes — such as railroads, shipping and airports — are utilized by businesses in different localities.

“A little bit of a passion for the engineering side of it would be helpful, as well,” Beard said.  “It’s a lot to ask from someone.”

Dean draws praise

Holberg said her recent deference to other members on some topics was not meant as a test for potential successors on the powerful budget committee, but said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, had proven himself an adept student of aspects of the state budget. Dean, who would be entering his sixth term next year, served as majority leader during Zellers’ tenure as House leader, and was most recently the leading Republican on the House Capital Investment Committee, a position that made him a key negotiator on the 2014 bonding bill.

Abeler also mentioned Dean as a possible choice to wield the gavel on health and human services. That notion was echoed by one insider who recalled Dean’s central role as a liaison between House Democrats and Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s during a stand-off over the continuation of General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC), which Pawlenty had vetoed. GAMC enrollees were eventually folded in to the state’s existing Medical Assistance (MA) fund, and Dean’s effort in arriving at a compromise demonstrated a bipartisan streak.

“Who would have thought,” the source said, “that [Dean] would be the one to step in and work with [House Majority Leader] Erin Murphy to try and solve that?”

Abeler also pointed Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, now the minority leader on HHS policy, as a capable committee boss after he leaves the budget panel.

Beard demurred when given the chance to name good candidates for his replacement, but said he had “quietly” discussed the matter with caucus leaders and certain legislators during the course of last session.

“There are a couple of the sophomores that have come along,” Beard said, “that have expressed real interest and skill. Their districts would benefit — and, certainly, they would benefit politically — from their having a leadership role in transportation.”

Value of seniority

One theme touched on by several experts was the way the caucus values seniority — or, perhaps more accurate, how it does not. Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who has served as a political mentor to Daudt, said Democrats operate from a “[labor] union mentality” which, he argued, gives undue weight to years of service over talent.

“We, sometimes, would bypass seniority,” Seifert said, recalling his time in the Legislature. “People who had seniority, and who were interested in chairing a committee, were passed over for leadership positions.”

The eight longest-serving current House members are all Democrats. Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who is seeking a 12th non-consecutive term representing his southeastern district, is expected to be the most senior Republican by some margin next session. Second among current Republicans is Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, who formerly chaired the GOP’s economic development committee, and has spent five terms as a member of the ways and means committee, though one source speculated Gunther is likely “too moderate” to take the reins of the budget panel.

The lack of clout for more senior members could mean big things for newer members like second-term Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, described by one observer as a “super-wonk,” or Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, an ambitious freshman who has impressed with his well-spoken and nuanced arguments on legislation.

Holberg, for her part, said legislative experience can be the source of institutional memory, as when a new wave of freshmen legislators might float ideas that veteran lawmakers have seen tested or put into practice. She added that her successor would be required to have a good handle on backroom politics: The Ways and Means Committee leader is automatically a member of the Republican caucus’ executive board, creating “dual roles” for whoever takes Holberg’s spot.

Multiple sources said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, would be a strong candidate to pursue the lead position on Ways and Means, citing both temperament and expertise. Loon, an assistant majority leader under Daudt, survived a primary challenge from conservative activist Sheila Kihne earlier this year, and some said her large margin of victory in that election make her an even stronger choice for a high-ranking appointment.

One factor that could alter the GOP’s leadership shuffle is the prospective return of Jim Knoblach, a former six-term House veteran. Knoblach chaired the Ways and Means Committee for two consecutive terms before leaving office in 2006, when he sought and lost the 6th Congressional District nomination to Michele Bachmann. If he unseats freshman Rep. Zach Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud, Knoblach could be primed to reclaim that role, or to inherit the taxes committee if Davids decides to pursue the budget position.

Also certain to complicate things, should Republicans regain control of the House, is the intra-party battle to take over as new majority leader. One insider easily named a half-dozen candidates for that position, including Loon, Mack, Albright and Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, among others. Only after that key vacancy is filled, the source said, could one begin to sort out the rest of the lineup.

A Republican majority would also put the GOP in command of resetting the committee structure. Daudt said he would mostly look to model the system to correspond with existing Senate committees, though he said he was committed to divorcing the House’s environment and agricultural finance committees from each other, calling their union under the DFL a “slap in the face to greater Minnesota” and its farmers.

Though Abeler acknowledged he had thought extensively about his retirement, and what it might mean for himself, the caucus and the House itself, he warned against excess anxiety in over the departing leaders.

“On a grander scheme, people come and go there all the time — and the world is always going to end,” Abeler said. “At some point, they will govern and run the place, and there’s going to be bills passed.”

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