House, Senate Republicans unroll reform agenda

By T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol reporter

Republicans gathered at the State Capitol, Jan. 19, to present an “aggressive” reform agenda — an agenda neither Republican nor Democratic but Minnesotan, they claim.

“This is big,” said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

“This is bold reform,” he said.

Republicans depict their lengthy reform agenda, which calls for tax reform, cutting state regulation, improvements in health care and education, as an outgrowth of meetings with the public.

House Majority Leader Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, wracked up some 2800 miles attending 19 meetings around the state to confer with the public, he said.

“It’s hard work,” Dean said.

“It requires a lot of buy-in,” he said of forming an agenda.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, led the Senate reform initiative which largely has the Senate walking in lockstep with the House on reform issues, Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said.

“We’re going to work with the House to make this happen,” said Senjem.

In the area of education, Republicans propose to shrink the student achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul by granting the mayors control of the schools.

“No one has gone backward,” said House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, of cities which have adopted a mayor-at-the-helm strategy for education.

Garofalo gave a spirited defense of Republican proposed reforms dealing with charter schools — Republicans would allow parents to petition to convert struggling public schools into charter schools and call for the aggressive replication of successful charter schools.

Exemplar urban charter schools have “completely debunked” the notion children of color cannot academically excel, Garofalo said.

Some proposed reforms in health care — Republicans style their reforms as fighting nationalized health care — include allowing the elderly to convert death benefits into long-term care insurance benefits and better screening of potential recipients to combat Medicaid fraud.

House Health and Human Services Finance Committee Chairman Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, spoke of using photo facial recognition technology as a means of cracking down on “a very narrow, targeted group” of Minnesotans defrauding the welfare system.

Looking at government itself, Republican perceived reform mentions equalizing government salaries with those of the private sector, reducing the number of state workers, requiring city and county government to draw up their budgets in a plain and simple style understandable to taxpayers.

In terms of reducing the size of the state government workforce, Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, House Republican point man on many government reform issues, indicated reduction could be achieved by the simple expedient of not rehiring staff after the staff workers retires.

“If you don’t change, you die,” said Senjem of the rule of change in the private sector that should also hold true for government.

Republicans also included a list of items in their reform package that surfaced during the state government shutdown.

These include allowing the Minnesota Zoo, Canterbury Park, the Minnesota lottery and racing commission to operate during shutdowns.

They also propose that future shutdowns should not interfere with the sale of beer.

Zellers indicated the House Republican Caucus’s top reform priorities are those affecting the business community.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that it appeared the Republican reform agenda involved revoking teacher tenure rights and other controversial steps.

Returning to ideas that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed last session in legislation was “not helpful,” said Bakk.

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