Newly minted Minnesota Senate leader Gazelka predicts peaceful 2017 session

NISSWA - Ever since his fellow Republicans chose him as Minnesota Senate Majority Leader, state Sen. Paul Gazelka of Nisswa has been burning the candle at both ends.

NISSWA - Ever since his fellow Republicans chose him as Minnesota Senate Majority Leader, state Sen. Paul Gazelka of Nisswa has been burning the candle at both ends.

“Very, very early mornings and long nights, almost every day,” he said last week.

He added that he did manage to sneak in a nap on Sunday, though.

The task falls to Gazelka because Senate Minority Leader David Hann, who under normal circumstances would have been a shoe-in for the spot, lost his seat in the general election two weeks ago. Gazelka watched the early state-level returns and initially assumed Hann’s defeat at the beginning of election night was a bellwether that signified Republican candidates for Legislature as a whole were in for a rough time. As it turned out, however, Hann was the only GOP incumbent to be unseated, and the Republican caucus on Nov. 10 chose Gazelka to become Senate Majority Leader.  

Now comes the administrative work of switching the Senate over from DFL control to Republican control. Although obviously the transition that Gazelka faces is a great deal smaller-scale than president-elect Donald Trump, he faces a similar list of tasks. He must help prepare the legislative agenda of policy changes that his party will put forth beginning in January, and he must select leaders for important subordinate roles. Since the Republicans now control the Senate, each committee of lawmakers must switch leaders from DFL senators to Republican senators. Then, the rest of the committee needs to be assigned.


He’s also met with incumbent leaders -- including outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt -- to help determine how to proceed.

Getting along fine The last time the Legislature had both houses under Republican control with Gov. Mark Dayton in power, partisan fighting in the face of a large budget shortfall lead to a multi-week government shutdown. The upcoming session that begins next January will have similar stakes as 2011, because legislators and Dayton will need to compromise in order to create a new budget.

Now, though, a more relaxed finance situation and more experience under the belts of Dayton and legislators mean there’s less likelihood of a shutdown happening than back then, Gazelka said.

“We definitely don’t want a shutdown, and I don’t think (Dayton) does, either,” he said. “We’ll find our way through it.”

Gazelka wants to make sure that Democrats get a fair shake even though they’re in the minority, and that the positive culture of the Senate is preserved.

“It’s important to me that the things that shouldn’t be partisan, stay nonpartisan,” he said.

Although Gazelka is known for his strong conservative stances on social issues such as LGBT rights and abortion, he told Minnesota Public Radio News that his priorities as Senate Majority Leader would be less controversial: reforming health care, getting a transportation package for Minnesota’s roads and bridges, and cutting taxes.

He was consistent with that assertion when interviewed this past week. He added that Republicans’ slim majority in the Senate means they will need to build consensus both among their own ranks, and between themselves and Democrats.


“As the majority leader, I’m going to lead by consensus,” Gazelka said. “We all believe that working with the House and the governor, it’s best to focus on the things that all of us agree on right now...”

As it stands now, the Republicans have a single-vote majority, depending on the results of two recounts.

The final, dysfunctional moments of the 2016 session that ended in May were marked by a very deep lack of consensus. Both a public infrastructure bill and a transportation bill fell apart as members stayed obstinate until the midnight time deadline.

Asked whether there would be any reforms to the legislative process, Gazelka said there would be, but declined to go into specifics, saying they were still being worked out among members.

Gazelka goes to St. Paul The fact that Gazelka’s Senate District 9 will have its senator in a main leadership role has both advantages and disadvantages for north-central Minnesota’s influence at the Capitol. On the one hand, Gazelka is obviously in a position to help make sure the needs of rural Minnesota receive attention.

However, Gazelka also acknowledged the added work of being Senate Majority Leader means he will have less time for the needs of his own district. To help pick up the slack, he asked John Poston and Ron Kresha, two Republicans who will represent each House district within Senate District 9, to pay extra attention to what’s going on in their home territory. He noted Kresha is in leadership in the House. Kresha serves as vice-chair of the Education Finance Committee.  

“Overall, I think it’s a very good thing to have key leadership people represent our area,” Gazelka said.

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