With Republicans in charge, Legislature convenesby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Legislature opened the 2011 session Tuesday with Republicans in charge of both chambers for the first time in nearly four decades.
The day was marked with much ceremony, but most lawmakers were looking beyond the opening day festivities to a looming $6.2 billion budget deficit they have to erase by May 23.
View a photo gallery from the Capitol.
Republicans now control the House and Senate, but they needed the help of two Democrats to get the new session underway. Minnesota's new Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon called the state Senate to order at noon, while Secretary of State Mark Ritchie gaveled in the House. Soon after, all 201 legislators took their oaths of office.
In the Senate, lawmakers elected Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, to preside over floor sessions as president. She is the first woman in state history to hold the post.
"I am truly honored that I would be elected to this position," she said. "And I will certainly do my best to preside in fairness and do this great institution justice."
The new Senate majority leader, Amy Koch of Buffalo, is also the first woman to hold her leadership post. Koch called it a day for making history. She also acknowledged that another piece of history, a record $6.2 billion state budget deficit, is waiting in the wings, but Koch said the budget work could wait another day.
"We're really trying to live in the day today," Koch said. "We recognize that we have a very large job ahead of us. Tomorrow we're going to get down to work."
Senate DFLers, who are trying to adjust to their new minority status, supported the election of Fischbach and Koch. Some Democrats took issue with the selection of former Pawlenty cabinet member Cal Ludeman as Secretary of the Senate.
In the House, Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, was elected the new speaker. Zellers thanked his colleagues for their support and Minnesota business owners for the jobs they provide. Zellers promised taxpayers that he would treat every state dollar with respect and frugality.
"These are tough economic times," he said. "We in government will respect your hard-earned dollars just like you do. We will make them stretch."
All but three of the 33 new House members are Republicans. The Senate has 20 new Republicans out of a freshmen class of 23. Pam Myhra, a new GOP state representative from Burnsville, said she visited almost 12,000 homes personally in her election bid.
"People were very concerned about jobs. They're concerned about the economy," Myhra said. "Numerous times people said, 'Please hold down the spending. You guys are spending too much in St. Paul.' And so those are going to be my priorities."
VETERAN DFLER: REALITY WILL SOON SET IN
Most Republican freshmen were making similar comments. Veteran Democrats, who are now in the minority, have noticed.
"I think that's one of the scary things with new people coming in, is that sometimes they've been given so much political rhetoric, they come to believe what they're saying, even if it's not real," said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who is beginning his eighth term in office.
Marty said freshmen legislators will soon learn that the courts, highways and schools have already been neglected too long. Marty said budget reality will soon set in.
"The governor will put out his budget first and they'll criticize it, because it will have some taxes in it, and they'll come back with their own proposal, they say, with no new taxes," Marty predicted. "But if they're paying attention to what their doing, I don't think it's something they'll really want to do."
Gov. Mark Dayton, who took office on Monday, hosted a reception for lawmakers, but otherwise kept a fairly low profile. The Democrat repeated his inaugural pledge of cooperation, and said he remains optimistic that he can reach a budget agreement with Republicans within the next five months.
- All Things Considered, 01/04/2011, 5:15 p.m.