‘Numbers guy’ has key role crafting GOP budget
ST. PAUL -- It's a rare legislator who wins back his seat after walking away from it eight years earlier. It's even more unusual for that lawmaker to be named chairman of what is widely regarded as the most powerful committee in the Minnesota Leg...
ST. PAUL - It’s a rare legislator who wins back his seat after walking away from it eight years earlier.
It’s even more unusual for that lawmaker to be named chairman of what is widely regarded as the most powerful committee in the Minnesota Legislature.
But state Rep. Jim Knoblach is no ordinary policymaker.
“He’s probably the smartest member of the Legislature,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said, explaining why he appointed Knoblach to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, the panel charged with deciding how the chamber aims to spend Minnesotans’ state tax dollars.
Knoblach, 57, a Republican from St. Cloud, will get his first big test of the session in his new role Tuesday, when he and his committee set spending targets for 11 House tax and finance panels. That’s his most important assignment for the year.
It’s a tense job. Each committee chair pushes hard for his or her own piece of the budget.
While Knoblach’s colleagues respect him, “we’ll see how well-loved he is after we get the targets,” joked Rep. Denny McNamara, the Hastings Republican who chairs an environment and natural resources finance committee.
In an interview last week, Knoblach declined to reveal details of the House GOP spending plan, but he reiterated, “Our targets are going to be lower” than DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposals.
“I like the governor,” he said. “I think he’s trying to do what he thinks is best, although I disagree with him on probably 95 percent of what he thinks is best.”
But he said Dayton is “just plain wrong” in proposing to spend nearly all of the state’s $1.87 billion budget surplus. Republicans want to give more of the surplus back to taxpayers, he said, and spend more general-fund dollars on roads, bridges and nursing homes.
Adding up numbers
Knoblach stressed that he isn’t making the budget calls unilaterally. Those decisions are made through a collaborative process.
All 72 members of the House Republican majority caucus have been asked to list their budget priorities and discuss how much they want to spend.
In recent weeks, Knoblach, Daudt and House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin have been meeting almost daily with the House money committee chairs to assemble their budget plan.
Knoblach said his main task is to “make sure the numbers all add up,” not to dictate priorities.
“They call it the ‘powerful’ Ways and Means Committee, but I guess I’m not really into the powerful stuff,” he said.
Nonetheless, Daudt thinks his new chairman is very influential. The speaker chose Knoblach for the job in part because of his experience. He served in the House from 1995 through 2006 and chaired the Ways and Means Committee during his last four years there.
“I’ve only been here for four years,” the speaker said. “It’s nice for me to have somebody that has a lot of institutional knowledge and someone that I trust and can lean on.”
His counterparts in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party say Knoblach is a reasonable adversary.
“He’s more conservative than I am, but we’ve always worked well together,” said veteran Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Cohen, the DFLer who negotiated several budget bills with him in the past.
DFL Rep. Lyndon Carlson, who chaired Ways and Means during the previous two years, said that so far, Knoblach is “very open, cooperative and fair. But at this point, he’s untested.”
His real test, Carlson added, is whether he can help put together a budget that not only wins House Republican approval but also can pass the DFL-run Senate and win Dayton’s signature.
The Legislature’s main job this session is to pass a balanced budget for the next two years. Dayton completed his spending proposals last week. After Knoblach’s committee passes a House budget resolution Tuesday, the Senate will unveil its own spending caps by the end of the week.
Then the money committees will get down to the business of drafting tax and spending bills. Those panels must send their measures to the House and Senate floors by April 24. When they clear the floors, negotiators for the two houses and Dayton will try to hammer out the final budget agreements before the May 18 deadline for adjournment.
At 6-foot-3 with a booming voice, Knoblach commands attention when he speaks. Usually, he’s rattling off figures, rarely showing emotion. He exhibits an encyclopedic knowledge of the budget, recalling numbers from memory without referring to notes.
“He’s a human spreadsheet,” said former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.
A self-described “numbers guy,” Knoblach said he’s more of a business person than a politician.
He was born and raised in St. Cloud, where his ancestors landed in the 1870s. His father was a successful real estate broker in the city.
At St. Cloud Apollo High School, he ran cross country, played French horn and competed on the debate team. Although a junior-high teacher sparked his awareness of politics, he said, “My first interest was business.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in economics and business administration at nearby St. John’s University and an MBA at Harvard, he returned to St. Cloud to join his father’s firm and later founded his own real estate business. He left there to help a friend start a medical device firm in Minneapolis.
When that job ended, Knoblach said, “I was still single and thought it was a good time to pursue my interest in government.” He enrolled in a Georgetown University graduate program in American government and landed a job as an intern on U.S. Sen. David Durenberger’s staff.
“In November of 1986, I went to the most depressing party I’ve ever been to,” he said. Republicans lost control of the Senate that day, “and all of us at the party realized we were losing our jobs.”
So he finished work on his master’s degree at Georgetown and returned to Minneapolis to launch a direct marketing firm. He met his wife, Janet, there, and they moved back to St. Cloud to start a family.
After running what had become a printing, marketing and data-processing company for about seven years, he sold it in 1994. That year, the legislator representing his House district retired, so Knoblach ran for the vacant seat and won.
In 2006, after six terms in the House, he decided to step down “for family reasons - our two kids were becoming teenagers,” he said. He sought the GOP endorsement for Congress in the 6th District but lost to Michele Bachmann. So he returned to business full time.
‘Make a difference’
Last year, the Legislature beckoned again. His children were in college, and “it looked like there was a good chance Republicans would take the (House) majority,” he said. In addition, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, the former Republican Ways and Means chair, was retiring, and he thought there was a “good possibility” he could reclaim that committee assignment.
Another incentive was the planned $90 million Senate office building, now under construction north of the Capitol. Knoblach thought the project was a “big waste of money,” and he believed the way the DFL-controlled Legislature authorized it in an unrelated tax bill was unconstitutional.
In November 2013, he filed a lawsuit to stop the construction, but he dropped the suit last June when the state appeals court ruled that he would have to post an $11 million surety bond for the case to proceed.
“It made me think more about how I could make a difference down there,” he said.
Knoblach remained politically active after he left the House, chairing Seifert’s campaigns for governor in 2010 and early 2014. Knoblach and Daudt met and became friends on Seifert’s first campaign, which Daudt managed.
Knoblach’s political comeback wasn’t easy. He and his wife had moved from his previous GOP-leaning House district to a new home in a more Democratic part of town.