ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Countless numbers will shape Minnesota’s 2017 legislative session: 201 lawmakers, a $1.4 billion surplus, a two-year budget and four months’ time.
A single number could be the most consequential: One. That’s the size of Republicans’ majority as they take over the Senate next year, a critical footnote in the party’s complete legislative control.
It leaves new Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka with no room for error, puts a premium on GOP unity from suburban Plymouth to rural Park Rapids and forces Republicans to constrain an agenda to the basics: health care fixes, tax relief and transportation funding. When one lost vote can mean failure, absences, vacation and even illness are out of the question.
Current and former legislative leaders agree it’s a difficult dynamic that requires a special touch. But neither Gazelka nor his fellow Republicans need reminding that sticking together is key. “We all felt like that was the reality” coming out of the election, the Nisswa Republican said.
Just winning the 34-33 majority was a welcome surprise for Senate Republicans: GOP candidates lost two Senate seats but won eight DFL districts en route to the party’s second majority in more than 40 years. Combined with a GOP House majority, it gives Republicans the upper hand against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in crafting a two-year budget with a large surplus.
In his four-term tenure as House speaker, former Republican Rep. Steve Sviggum managed both overwhelming GOP majorities and fragile seat margins. The smaller the edge, the more critical it was to keep his members in the loop on the high-level negotiations with the Senate and the governor, he said.
“Every single individual can wield a little abnormal pressure just because you might need their vote. From a standpoint of strategy, you have to keep the team much closer, much more involved, much more aware,” Sviggum said. “You need all the votes and you can’t allow one to stray off the pasture.”
From the day he was chosen to be one of the most powerful Minnesota politicians, Gazelka has stressed teamwork, labeling his caucus “34 strong.” Critically, he elevated both moderate and more conservative Republican senators to deputy leadership roles.
To get through it, Gazelka is leaning on his career managing a massive home and automobile insurance operation in northeastern Minnesota. But the fourth-term senator has also learned from his time at the Capitol — particularly the 2011 and 2012 sessions, when Republicans charged into power only to be swept right back out in 2014 after passing ballot initiatives that would have banned same-sex marriage and required voter ID.
Despite his own support for traditional marriage and other socially conservative issues, he said Republicans will be more focused on fixing Minnesota’s individual health insurance market, funding road and bridge repairs, providing tax cuts and easing governmental regulations.
“We thought we could change the world,” Gazelka said of losing that majority. “We’re more methodical this time. We’re not pedal to the metal.”
With bills required to also pass in the House and gain the governor’s signature, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Gazelka and Republicans will need to walk a fine line.
“There are a lot of ramifications down the road,” the Democrat said. “Having only a 34-33 margin just puts one more little wrinkle in the way of getting something signed.”
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