The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 29, 2013

Joe Spear: GOP typhoon giving way to change

Democrats and Republicans move to the middle

By Joe Spear
The Free Press

— If the Minnesota Republican Party could be likened to a typhoon as it took control of both houses of the Minnesota Legislature two years ago, the new version taking over after the typhoon was quelled might be likened to a steady bicyclist fighting a headwind but tacking in the same direction.

Republicans who took control in 2010 were like the wild wind and rain storm, harsh in their methods, sometimes chaotic in their direction but sure they could change the landscape of Minnesota politics if they just had enough storm to throw at it.

The politics of no new taxes and no new spending haven't been abandoned in word, but when it comes to deeds, there are hints of change, albeit small and subtle.

 At a recent meeting with The Free Press, the House Republican minority leadership offered some insights about this Republican Party after the storm.

The old regime, that of 2010 victory, did not appear to tolerate diversity of opinion without a threat of retribution. That often comes with majority status and so it may be unfair to describe the new regime as more tolerant, but that's what it seems like given the context of previous meetings with both parties over the years.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt is from Crown, in rural Isanti County farm country. Ironically elected first in that "typhoon class," he is young, white and single. Former Speaker Kurt Zellers is white, married and from the suburbs. He had been there nearly 10 years. The change in leadership geographically and in terms of longevity seems to have brought a change in approach.

The hard line has given way to what some may consider more moderate stances. Rep. Paul Torkelson, a Hanska farmer, and assistant minority leader, spoke of the $80 million expansion of local government aid Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing. He thinks it will help the cities in his district like New Ulm, but acknowledges it "would work fine with less money."

Rep. Kelby Woodard, Belle Plaine, and lead Republican on the K-12 House committee didn't reject the idea of $160 million expansion of education funding for all day kindergarten that Dayton and Democrats are again proposing as an increase. He doesn't agree with how they're spending it, but seems to have no real objections to the idea.

Even Minority Leader Daudt said there's $1 billion in additional spending that can be done without raising taxes. Referencing additional spending would not have been in the previous Republican leadership's lexicon.

Torkelson also objects to the proposed $150 million slash in spending for health and human services that House Democratic Speaker Paul Thissen has proposed. Torkelson favors 5 percent increase in wages for workers in group homes in small towns, where health care facilities are sometimes the largest employer.

There were a few other phrases you wouldn't have heard from the typhoon class.

From Woodard of Belle Plaine: Frac sand mining "employs a lot of good  union folks."

From Daudt on gay marriage: "We probably ignited the issue by putting a ballot question on the ballot."

Civic center bonding requests were almost considered welfare by the last class. This time around they're "ordeals in outstate" that will probably get funded with a handful of Republican votes making up the 60 percent needed for bonding issues.

Republicans, again in the minority, have the luxury of being for a lot of good things but not really having to make a commitment to pay. One wonders if they will vote for revenue increases to get all the things they would like to see. It's hard to say because they haven't offered their own budget or even a set of spending priorities.

To be sure, Republicans did stick to many of the old themes and they bring out the attack dogs every once in a while likening DFL attempts at unionizing day cares to bullying. Daudt still says the state should live within its means, and higher taxes hurt job creation. They argue their budget of two years ago and the shutdown politics with Dayton that produced a no new state taxes budget has essentially "worked."

They believe their fiscally austere strategy works as well, and argue Democrats won back both houses by running as conservatives.

Democrats appear to be orchestrating their own now-you-see-them, now-you-don't politics. Republicans say while Dayton talked about higher taxes, very few legislative candidates followed or included it in their campaign literature.

Speaker Thissen's proposed cuts to human services even astounded the former Republican chair of the health committee, Rep. Jim Abeler.

On the Senate side, DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk has been lukewarm to a number of House Democratic exhortations including gay marriage and gun background checks.

Republicans react, like Democrats, to elections, especially ones that are lost. Both parties appear to be considering the middle as a more friendly place to do business.

In that sense, elections work.

Joe Spear is editor of The Free Press. Contact him at or 344-6382.