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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published December 24 2011

Minnesota Political Notebook: Senate leader, House speaker wield huge power

ST. PAUL - Many Minnesotans may not understand why there has been all the fuss about Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch resigning, but that position and that of the House speaker are very powerful.

When it comes to passing legislation, in a large part they decide what bills have a chance to reach the governor’s desk. In other words, they have veto power before the governor does.

In reality, the House or Senate could overrule a speaker or majority leader, but that seldom happens.

The caucus with the most members in each chamber picks a majority leader or speaker shortly after the November election. That person begins to make decisions right away, in most cases talking to other members of a leadership team that was mostly elected by members.

An early key decision is what committees the chamber will have. Then, where it gets personal, the leader or speaker picks chairmen and chairwomen for the committees. Those committee heads control what issues are heard.

Once a session begins, the two may pick which committee gets which bills – even what bills will see a committee and what ones will stagnate. Once the committee process ends on a bill, the two could let it wither way, never reaching a full House or Senate vote, or push for a quick vote.

Gov. Mark Dayton talked about an example of their power in a recent interview. He said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, fears a vote on a Vikings stadium construction bill in an election year like 2012. The Democratic governor said Zellers could hold the bill up so his members do not have a controversial stadium vote on their record as they are running for re-election.

Better December

A year ago, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and other Democrats were pretty unhappy they were forced to lay off 40 workers when they lost Senate control to Republicans.

“This December is a lot easier for me than the last one was,” Bakk said. “Last December was a pretty tough transition for us and me personally.”

With Democrats in control of the Senate for 38 years, workers had not feared for their jobs for a long time. Legislative jobs are at the will of lawmakers, and the party with a majority of members decides who will be employed.

While Bakk may be emotionally relieved, he still faces lots of work.

“It is more work for me because almost every day I am working on fundraising or recruiting candidates,” he said, in anticipation of the 2012 elections for every legislative seat.

Little pain

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said he can look back on 2011 thinking that a Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton “effectively managed a massive budget deficit.”

Some people may disagree, but Zellers said, “There were not any great pains inflicted.”

Legislative Republicans and Dayton negotiated before the Legislature’s May adjournment and then in June as a shutdown neared. The resolution after a 20-day government shutdown pretty much spilt the difference between what Dayton and Republicans wanted in the budget.

Gangs and politics

Gov. Mark Dayton says his time dealing with East Coast gangs early in his career has helped him with politics.

As a New York City teacher and Boston social worker, Dayton had to confront gangs from time to time, he said in an interview.

The main lesson he learned is to seek out the gang’s leader and talk. That is what Dayton has done during the few protests that have happened during his first year as governor.

The first instance was on his second day in office. During the signing of a controversial executive order, the governor’s reception room filled with opponents.

Security and protesters scuffled before the event, but opponents quieted down when he invited representatives to the microphone to explain their side of the issue.

But there are times when such moves do not work, and it’s important to have a practical grasp of the tactics’ limits, Dayton said.

More connected

The organization Connect Minnesota reports that 97 percent of state households have access to high-speed Internet.

“Clearly we have moved forward thanks to providers, communities and broadband proponents, but we still have work to do to meet the goals set by the Minnesota Legislature.” Program Manager Bill Hoffman of Connect Minnesota said.

A new study shows 61,000 Minnesota remain without high-speech Internet connection opportunities.

In rural Minnesota, nearly 94 percent of homes have high-speech access.

Barkley: ‘Vote no’

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley wants Minnesotans to oppose a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages.

The Independence Party member who briefly served in Washington after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died said it is “long past time” to allow gays to marry.

“I am proud that the party I co-founded has not only taken a stand but is actively working to defeat this amendment in next November,” he said.


Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.