GOP announces 2011-12 leg. committee leadership

Rep. Bud Nornes and Sen. Michelle Fischbach will chair the state higher education committees.

James Nord

Sen. Michelle Fischbach and Rep. Bud Nornes will head the legislative higher education committees in the 2011-2012 biennium. Fischbach and Nornes are two of 40 committee chairmembers the state GOP caucuses announced Wednesday.

Nornes is returning to the chairmanship, which he gave up after the 2006 DFL takeover of the House. Fischbach, the incoming Senate President, hasnâÄôt served on the Higher Education Committee in her 14 years in office.

Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, will focus on procuring higher education funding and providing state grants, he said. If thereâÄôs a
bonding bill this session, he would only support funding for upkeep and not new construction.

“I try to be kind of calm and cool,” Nornes said. “We have a tough job to do, and weâÄôll get it done and I guess IâÄôm up to the challenge.”

The DFL minority can expect more collaboration in the committee, he said, which will begin the session by introducing new members to the stateâÄôs different higher education systems.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, the outgoing committee chairman, said he has confidence in NornesâÄô leadership.

“My only hope is that higher education isnâÄôt hit terribly hard because itâÄôs very important for economic development in the whole state,” he said. “I donâÄôt want to see the students at the University of Minnesota or the [Minnesota State Colleges and Universities] system get hammered more than they already have.”

Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said heâÄôs unsure about his status as a committee member.

Last session, the University requested $1.4 billion in state aid and received $1.2 billion. The Board of Regents approved a $1.3 billion request for this session.

Senate Majority Leader-designate Amy Koch said the Republican caucuses took seniority into account when determining leadership positions, but also focused on candidates with experience to best fill certain roles.

Sen. Geoff Michel, the new Jobs and Economic Growth Committee chairman, said RepublicansâÄô main goals are to curb spending, reform government and create jobs.

“We didnâÄôt start this exercise with, âÄòOK, everybody gets a chairmanship, which one do you want?âÄô” he said. “I think thatâÄôs the way the Minnesota Senate was run for the last three decades.”

A group of volunteers in each body submitted a list of suggested chairmembers to the caucus leadership, which made the final decision.

Some members, like Claire Robling, the current ranking GOP member of the Senate Higher Education Committee, were suited for more than one position.

“SheâÄôs kind of like our Michael Cuddyer,” Michel said, referring to the Minnesota Twins utility player. “You can put her in a number of spots. We put her in a tough spot: the Finance Committee.”

The House and Senate Republican caucuses rolled back the committee structure Tuesday.

They chopped the number of legislative committees by about 35 percent âÄî from 61 to 40 âÄî through the merging of committees that were previously separated into budget and policy divisions.

Incoming House Speaker Kurt Zellers called the makeover “decades in coming.”

The House saw the largest reductions âÄî from 36 to 24 âÄî while the number of Senate committees was chopped from 25 to 16.

GOP leaders said their goal when restructuring the Legislature was to clarify the lawmaking process and eliminate redundancy.

The move will save the state a projected $750,000 per biennium, roughly $250,000 from the SenateâÄôs budget and $500,000 from the HouseâÄôs, according to Republican estimates.

“I applaud their efforts to streamline things,” outgoing Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Staff reductions will come with the changes. Koch estimated the Senate would lose roughly four positions, while Zellers said the House would cut “significant numbers” of staff âÄìâÄì perhaps in the double-digits.

The Republicans used a striking image to prove their point at the Tuesday press event. A diagram of the current committee structure looked like a mess of red and blue pick-up-sticks which connected dozens of committees. This is the “plate of spaghetti” that is committee structure right now, Zellers said.

The new organization depiction appeared clean and direct.

Business owners and lobbyists will have an easier time weighing in on legislation in the future because of the changes, Zellers said. Sibling committees in each body wonâÄôt meet at the same time in order to allow interested parties to attend both sessions.

Pogemiller raised concerns about how combining committees related to health and human services could affect the amount of input specific issues receive. Meetings will likely be much longer to compensate.

Pogemiller also oversaw a reduction the number of committees while in charge. The number has peaked and plateaued over the years, typically following the trend of seniority.

After liberals took over the Senate in 1972 with a slim majority, there were only 13 committees during the next session âÄìâÄì equal to the number of senior members.

Republicans fielded questions about the necessity of keeping two Legislative bodies with so many similarities.

Zellers said the incoming class of freshman legislators will shake things up and could provide a fresh take on legislation.

The two bodies are likely to agree on overarching issues and argue over the details, Koch said.

“If youâÄôve ever been around here, you know we have 201 Type-A personalities,” Zellers said. “Not everyone here is willing to say, âÄòOh sure, I will defer.âÄô ThereâÄôs going to be a difference just in personalities.”