Gazelka may be key to finishing on time

The ECM Editorial Board spent a day at the state Capitol last week, and the primary piece of news gathered was about the state senator from District 9, Paul Gazelka.

Gazelka, R-Nisswa, became Senate Majority Leader in November, after GOP Senate leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, unexpectedly lost

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

his re-election bid.

District 9 includes all of Todd County, and portions of Morrison, Cass and Wadena counties.

While the ECM Editorial Board was grilling DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on the issues between him and the Legislature, I tossed out this throwaway question: “You’ve been at this for a few years now, so I’m wondering what you think is the biggest surprise of this legislative session?”

Without hesitating, the governor said, “Paul Gazelka.”

The governor went on to say that Gazelka had been a “great influence” in changing the tone of the session and called him “a very sincere individual.”

I was glad I was sitting down because when was the last time anybody has heard a DFLer offer unsolicited praise of a Republican, or vice versa?

My cynical mind’s first thought was that Gazelka is about to get rolled by the DFL.

But the more I thought about it, the more I think the governor was sincere in his compliment.

For those Minnesotans who have not been following what’s going on in St. Paul, the governor and Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, have been going at it hammer and tong ever since the 2016 legislative session ended with vetoes and unfinished business.

Some would call that politics as usual.

Gazelka, meanwhile, has been perceived to be stuck in the middle. He told me in December that he is well aware that his majority is by only one vote in the Senate, 34 Republicans, 33 DFLers. He understood from the start that to complete the work of the state, he needs to reach out to DFLers when it is appropriate.

So later in the day, when the Editorial Board met with Gazelka, I asked him the same question, what was the biggest surprise he’s experienced in his new role?

He said, “How hard it is to get 34 people on the same side to agree.”

Then one of my colleagues prodded me to tell him what Dayton had said in response to that question.

Gazelka asked, “What did he say?”

I responded, “You.”

Gazelka seemed surprised, but quickly recovered, saying that he felt he and Dayton had a good working relationship.

Make no mistake. Gazelka is as conservative as Dayton is liberal. But in his introductory remarks to the Editorial Board, Gazelka said, “I’m a conservative with a moderate tone.”

He also said that the key to getting things done this session comes down to how the Senate relates to the governor and how it relates to the House of Representatives. He said, “In the end, if you can respect (one another), then you can work through your differences.”

The Republicans moved up the deadlines for committees and floor action by a couple of weeks, in order to put bills in front of the governor earlier than in the past. Their hope was to avoid some of the last minute chaos such as occurred last year.

If the governor vetoes a bill or two (and he has already laid out at least a half dozen non-negotiable positions), that way the Legislature can either attempt to override the veto (fat chance of that given the overall political polarization), or to amend the bills in order to get the work done that the citizens of this state expect.

The Editorial Board also met with Daudt, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

Daudt came to our meeting steamed at the governor. Just a day or two before, the governor informed the Legislature that he would not start negotiating if both the House position and the Senate position were still on the table. The House and Senate had to reach agreement first. Then final negotiations would start.

Daudt thought the governor was changing the rules. Gazelka, however, thinks the governor’s new position will only delay matters a few days.

Make no mistake, the gulf between the two parties stretches beyond this universe into the next.

A few examples:

  • The governor is offering $184 million in tax relief over the next biennium, the Senate wants $902 million and the House wants $1.35 billion.
  • The governor wants funding for mass transit and a gas tax hike in the transportation bill; the Republicans don’t.
  • The governor wants universal pre-K classes for 4-year-olds. The Republicans want to target scholarships to those children who need them most.

But given that Gazelka is more interested in getting the people’s business done than in scoring political points, it ought to give one at least a glimmer of hope that the recent trend of special sessions and/or government shutdowns can be avoided.

 

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at tom.west@mcrecord.com.