GOP welcomes new faces, new ideas to Minn. Senateby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
Guided tours of the Minnesota Capitol aren't just for school children and sightseers this week. They're also a key part of the Senate's freshman orientation -- and a must for a wave of newcomers to the Legislature.
Last week's historic election not only switched control of the Minnesota Senate from Democrats to Republicans for the first time in 38 years, but it also brought in a herd of political rookies to the State Capitol.
More than half of the Senate's new incoming Republican majority will be serving their first term.
A basic understanding of the building layout should help these new legislators get to the correct chamber when the session begins Jan. 4. Among them is John Howe, the newly elected senator from Red Wing.
"I'm just so privileged to be here serving the state of Minnesota, serving District 28 and serving the Republican Party," Howe said.
Howe won the seat vacated by state Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.
Republicans gained 16 seats on Election Day to capture a 37 to 30 advantage over the DFL. The new majority caucus will be made up of 21 new Senators and just 16 returning Senators.
Howe was the mayor of Red Wing, where he had some first-hand experience making budget cuts. But unlike many mayors who want to preserve state aid to cities, Howe said he wants to consider changing that aid as part of state budget-balancing discussions.
"A lot of people talk about government living inside its means, but government has no means," Howe said. "Government has to live inside of our means, and I think that's the message we have to carry moving forward."
Early next month, lawmakers will learn if a projected $5.8 billion budget deficit is getting bigger or smaller. Republicans don't want to raise taxes. They want to cut government spending and help businesses create new jobs.
Senator-elect Michelle Benson of Ham Lake, who won the seat vacated by fellow Republican Debbie Johnson, said she wants to reduce spending on health and human services programs. But Benson said it's too early for specifics.
"There are ways that we can serve people in a more efficient manner. Businesses have had to become more efficient. Government is going to have to become more efficient. Health and Human Services has the challenge of being highly federally regulated and very personal," Johnson said. "So it's going to take deep contemplation, empathy and efficiency in order to get that budget moved in a direction that's going to be helpful to everyone in the state."
With jobs as their top priority, Senate Republicans are boasting that many of their new members have business experience. Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo is the newly elected Senator in District 56, where he defeated incumbent Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury.
Lillie, who owns a publishing company, said voters wanted experienced business people in the Legislature to help grow new jobs.
"The people that I spoke with at the doors were basically more concerned about their personal family's budget than the state budget," he said. 'We need to find a way to help families survive and succeed in this trying time."
Veteran Republican lawmakers say the influx of freshmen, combined with their party's transition from minority to majority, will pose some challenges in the coming weeks. State Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina, who won re-election to a third term, said his GOP caucus has a lot of work to do. But Michel also said he likes what the new lawmakers can offer.
"Now a few of those members have House experience, and in at least one case we have a former senator who's come back to be a senator again," Michel said. "So, we've actually got a pretty good mix of experience and then what I would call freshness, some people who are going to bring some new blood and energy to the Capitol."
Senate Republicans have already assembled their caucus leadership team, led by Majority Leader Amy Koch of Buffalo. They'll soon unveil a new streamlined committee structure and announce the senators who will chair those committees.
- All Things Considered, 11/11/2010, 5:24 p.m.