Republicans elect new Leg. leadership for 2011 session

The respective caucuses elected Kurt Zellers and Amy Koch.

by James Nord

Republican legislators cleaned house over the weekend.

The respective caucuses elected Rep. Kurt Zellers as House Speaker and lawmaker Amy Koch as Senate majority leader.

The Republican tide that washed over both state legislative bodies on Nov. 2 âÄìâÄì sweeping away strong DFL majorities âÄìâÄì resulted in a historic leadership shakeup at the Capitol.

“ItâÄôs a little overwhelming right now,” Zellers, formerly the House minority leader, said. “ItâÄôs kind of like taking a drink out of the fire hydrant.”

State Republican caucuses, which chose Koch on Friday and Zellers on Saturday, havenâÄôt begun assigning other leadership roles, including committee chairs. Those positions will be finalized in the coming weeks, Koch said.

The House Speaker and the Senate majority leader serve as the head of both respective bodies. They enforce legislative procedure and ensure lawmakers vote within party lines, among other duties.

Senate Republican Minority Leader David Senjem didnâÄôt run against Koch for the majority position.

“I donâÄôt need to be the leader anymore,” he said. “IâÄôm going to support this woman as much as I possibly can.”

Koch, a three-term veteran of the Senate, is the first woman to hold the post. This is also the first time Republicans have controlled the Senate since it became partisan in 1976.

Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, failed in his bid against Koch for the position but presented a united face for the caucus. In the end, the vote for Koch was made unanimous.

Her energy, dedication and business background make Koch an excellent candidate, Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said.

“She speaks Russian fluently,” Michel said, before joking, “I think that might help around these hallways.”

Both Koch and Zellers âÄìâÄì who is entering his fifth term in the House âÄìâÄì played key roles in Republican election efforts, which could have helped them climb the ranks.

Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, a likely candidate to chair the Higher Education Committee, said many assume sheâÄôll take the position. But her seniority in the caucus and the unusual size of RepublicanâÄôs first-year class âÄìâÄì 21 new senators âÄìâÄì could call her to other, more pressing duties.

Regardless, “I would still keep my fingers in higher education,” she said.

Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, the outgoing chairwoman of the committee, is concerned with the direction Republicans will take and the effect it could have on higher education.

“I think this is pretty devastating for the state,” she said.

Pappas is unsure what her place will be once the dust settles. Republicans said theyâÄôll align the Senate and House committees and cut where they find redundancy.

Because of budget deficits and a Republican governor, the DFL-controlled Legislature consistently cut from higher education, which is unlikely to change. But Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the RepublicansâÄô likely choice to chair the House Higher Education Committee, is optimistic.

“IâÄôm for helping the students as much as I can so we donâÄôt put all the burden back on them,” he said.

Nornes has previously served as the committee chairman, but Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, replaced him when Democrats took over the House in 2006.

This election, voters pushed the DFL into choosing minority leadership. The DFL caucuses elected Sen. Tom Bakk to head their operations in the Senate and Rep. Paul Thissen to take over in the House.

Having spent a lot of time together campaigning across the state, both say they understand the issues facing Minnesota, Bakk said.

Koch, the Republican majority leader, told the press Friday she would work together with Bakk to get the stateâÄôs economy moving.

“WeâÄôre going to be looking for ways to goose the economy through the private sector,” she said.

The most important item on the LegislatureâÄôs plate is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said.

Coincidentally, Bakk based his gubernatorial bid around that phrase, albeit proposing to jumpstart the economy using different methods.

Koch stuck to the Republican mantra of “no new taxes,” which could fly in the face of Mark Dayton, the current leader in MinnesotaâÄôs gubernatorial race, and his plan to raise income taxes on the stateâÄôs highest earners.

“The Senate is now under new leadership, and the business-as-usual approach to government is now over,” Koch said.

DFLers fear that as the recount progresses with Gov. Tim Pawlenty remaining in office past his current term, Republicans could pass legislation Dayton wouldnâÄôt sign.

But Koch said Republicans arenâÄôt “looking to cram through legislation, weâÄôre not looking to play political games.”

ItâÄôs important for the recount process to begin before any plans are made, House Leader Zellers said.

On PawlentyâÄôs end, heâÄôs looking to fulfill his duty and move on.

“Politicians are like house guests,” Pawlenty said in a press conference last week, “youâÄôve got to know when to go.”