The current din emanating from the Capitol recalls a pop song played backwards. The melody seems familiar; only this time, the message is reversed.
At issue is the committee structure designed by House Republicans as they prepare to resume the majority. Decisions along those lines, including the creation of new committees and the assignment of personnel to lead various panels, have exhibited what most observers see as an unabashed appeal to Greater Minnesota.
The situation closely mirrors the fallout of the 2012 elections, when newly empowered Democrats awarded gavels to a number of lawmakers hailing from Minneapolis and St. Paul. At the time, conservatives derided the majority as heavily slanted toward Twin Cities interests, an argument that carried through to this year’s campaign season.
Critics claim the new committee structure is cynical at best — as Republicans look to curry favor with the outstate districts that flipped in their direction on Election Day — and risky at worst, leaving the state’s most populous areas fighting for elbow room at the negotiating table.
Republicans, meanwhile, say the new hierarchy is a necessary course correction after two years of DFL control, and a chance to tend to regions that had previously been overlooked. In announcing the new lineup, House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt said he was “proud” that more than half of the committee leaders live outstate.
“It reflects the fact that Greater Minnesota has, for the last couple years, been treated like ‘lesser Minnesota,’” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who will chair the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee.
Likewise, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who will chair the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee, did not run from the accusation that the caucus has set its sights squarely on outstate Minnesota.
“Guilty as charged,” Garofalo said, adding that the state’s overall economic success had failed to improve conditions in rural areas. “We need the whole state to prosper, not just the seven-county metro area.”
Of the 11 seats that swung to the GOP earlier this month, 10 represent outstate constituencies. The election night narrative was not lost on Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson and Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz, who penned a jointly authored commentary in the Montevideo American-News, asking if the new leaders would “deliver on their promise” to the voters who brought them to power.
“House Republicans,” they wrote, “have an extraordinary opportunity to be the voice for Greater Minnesota during the next two years.”
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities avoids getting too attached to any campaign spats or election results, said Heidi Omerza, an Ely City Council member and the current president of the powerful interest group. But the sight of numerous committee chairs hailing from outside the metro is a welcome one, she said, as it cuts down on the time needed to outline the importance of issues like local government aid (LGA) to small towns.
“When [the chair] is from Greater Minnesota, there’s less explaining to do when you tell your story,” Omerza said. “It’s a shorter story that you have to tell.”
For his part, House Speaker Paul Thissen, who will assume the minority leader position when the 2015 session convenes, said the premise of the GOP’s claim is flawed. Under the DFL’s majority, Thissen pointed out, legislators from outside the metro chaired key budgeting committees, including the education and human services finance committees.
Thissen said the GOP’s committee alignment “continues a dangerous trend” of pitting the Twin Cities against the rest of the state. He singled out the creation of one new panel, the House Greater Minnesota Economic & Workforce Development Policy, as more political than substantive.
“This committee could hear essentially any bill that comes to the Legislature — or it could hear no bills,” Thissen said. “I would also be curious to hear what Representative [Bob] Gunther thinks about having a committee that has no money attached to it.”
Powerful or not, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said that committee appears like an attempt to craft economic development that explicitly leaves out the state’s urban core.
“On the face of it, it looks like they mean to exclude the metro area,” Winkler said. “You’d have a hard time saying the whole metro area is doing great and all of Greater Minnesota is doing badly.”
Dean, meanwhile, defended the new committee’s usefulness, and also championed the establishment of a subcommittee on “aging and long-term care,” saying the preservation of local care facilities was essential to the “economic vitality” of rural Minnesota.
“People can stay in the town they want to stay in,” Dean said. “And, in many small towns, nursing homes and hospitals are a very important employer.”
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, will have one of the shortest drives to the Capitol of any notable committee chair. Loon, tapped to lead the House Education Finance Committee, said the question of “equitable” spending on public schools has been a controversial topic in each of her four previous terms in the House.
The school funding formula is, by nature, complex, and can be particularly challenging for new members. Loon said she plans to hold a set of “field visit” hearings for her committee, with some staged in or around Minneapolis and St. Paul, while others would see members drop-in on rural school districts.
The goal, she said, is to draft a budget that serves the diverse needs of the state. Loon is not concerned about pressure to give undue weight to outstate schools, despite the influx of new members from those regions.
“I don’t think my constituency is going to feel slighted in the least,” Loon said.”Our caucus may have slightly more rural membership, but it certainly recognizes we are here to serve all Minnesota. It doesn’t mean we serve rural Minnesota t the detriment to suburbs or the rest of the state.”
Expectations, with few exceptions, on committee leaders
League of Minnesota Cities lobbyist Gary Carlson was confident of at least one thing before Election Day: He would have a history with the House Taxes Committee chair.
The ascension of Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, to replace current chair Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, was an obvious development after the Republicans regained the House majority. The two lawmakers, who exhibit a strong rapport in committee settings, have both been central players in the tax law process for more than a decade.
“Those two have either chaired or played a prominent role in taxes going back, I think, to the turn of the century,” Carlson said. He said he appreciated the “stability,” adding: “I don’t see myself changing operations at all.”
Also expected by many, if not most, was the appointment of Rep.-elect Jim Knoblach (R-St.Cloud) to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Knoblach returns to the Legislature, and to that crucial post, after an eight-year hiatus from elected office. That absence assures something of a learning curve, but his appointment will only come as a surprise to those who don’t know Knoblach’s history, according to one source: Aside from his legislative career, the returning six-term legislator also holds postgraduate degrees from Harvard and Georgetown.
“He’s a genius,” the source said. “If he’s not in MENSA, he should be.”
Loon echoed that confidence in Knoblach’s ability, and said the “fairly young caucus, in terms of tenure” would accept his leadership and experience.
That Dean would take the gavel on HHS finances was always a strong possibility, though some had thought that position might fall to Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, who served as lead Republican on the health policy panel last term. The question now, several sources posited, is how the chair will go about addressing MNsure, a near-constant bogeyman for conservatives since its enactment in 2013.
As chair, Dean will likely face pressure from the caucus’s conservative wing for an outright repeal of the insurance exchange law, though one source questioned the efficacy of that argument, even as a symbolic tactic.
“If you repeal [MNsure], the alternative is a federal exchange, which you hate even more,” said the source, adding that a more likely battleground could emerge over the “active purchaser” language in the enacting legislation.
Dean, for his part, skipped the word “repeal” during an interview, saying instead, “We definitely need to correct some big mistakes.”
On the topic of environment, Conservation Minnesota lobbyist John Tuma said that organization was generally “very happy” with the appointments Daudt made. Tuma, a former four-term GOP legislator, cited three caucus decisions as promising signs of its intent:
n Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, regains the lead position the House Legacy Committee, where he is responsible for doling out a huge chunk of dedicated conservation dollars.
n Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, was reappointed to lead on the environment committee; Tuma praised the “balanced” approach McNamara had previously taken toward easements and the sale of state land.
n Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who will take over as head of the House Capital Investment Committee, has shown an interest in what Tuma called “smart, targeted” spending on conservation.
The latter appointment was among the notable surprises to some observers, given that Torkelson had never been a member of the capital investment committee through his first three terms. Numerous sources credited Torkelson as an able and conscientious lawmaker, but wondered how quickly he would master a huge and hugely complicated task like writing a bonding bill.
Conspicuous by her absence among incoming leaders is Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, whose seniority — Runbeck is entering her fifth term — should have put her in line for a leadership post. One source speculated Runbeck might be in line for a special “select committee” on a specific interest.