How Minnesota Republicans are using their one-member majority to rig the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and his caucus have a one-vote majority in the Senate and, somehow, a three vote majority on one of its committtees.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and his caucus have a one-vote majority in the Senate and, somehow, a three vote majority on one of its committtees. Associated Press

It’s going to be an exciting year for Republicans after taking control of both houses of the Minnesota Legislature.

This is an especially big deal in the Senate, where they have but a one-seat majority there (34-33) -- and are using it as license to do pretty much whatever they want. 

The real lawmaking power lies in the committees. There are 22, each dedicated to issues like Agriculture, Transportation, Finance, Education, etc. Any senator can introduce a bill. But a committee chair decides whether to give it a hearing or just let it die by ignoring it. Meanwhile, the size of a committee's majority makes a big difference in how many gifts you can rain upon your party's favored backers.  

This year, Republicans get to appoint whomever they want to these committees. Fairness, tradition, the will of the electorate, and clearly established Senate Rules (see section 10.1) demand that Republicans do not simply screw Democrats on this.

Whatever party proportions are overall, that's what committees are supposed to look like too. Which means that most should be about half and half, with a teensy advantage to the GOP. 

But this session, Republicans are doing away with all pretense of bipartisanship. They've stacked the committees with so many of their own guys, Democrats will be totally powerless to object to any bills they want to ram through.



Democrats tried to call bullshit last week, with a number of veteran senators standing up to beg for more balance.

“We’re flying in the face of the democratic outcome of the last election and we’re telling the voters of Minnesota that fully six of the senators they elected don’t count for anything, that their votes don’t count, and they’re not going to be able to have that proportional representation in committees where the work of the public is done,” said a very distraught Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis). “This is serious business, and this is also relationship business, and this is a really poor way for us to start off.”

Predictably, when it came to a vote over whether the Republicans were breaking the rules, everybody voted down the party line, and the Democrats were shut down.

The biggest loser in this whole situation is probably Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), who chaired the Judiciary committee for the last four years. Now, he is one of just three Democrats up against six Republicans. 

“Well, if we were truly being proportional, it would be a 5-4 committee, and there would be a built-in dynamic in the committee to find versions of legislation or to take up bills that reach a bipartisan consensus to make sure they pass,” Latz says. “Now they’ve got enough votes, even if they’re missing a person or two, to steamroll a bill through that might be pretty extreme. So I think it would have a tendency to favor more extremist legislation.”

Latz expects Republicans will try to cut funding for programs aimed at reducing incarceration. Or they may try to revive the issue of opening a private prison in Appleton. There certainly won’t be any talk of getting background checks on gun sales.

When Democrats were in power not so long ago, they had a much larger majority (39-28). Still, they gave themselves only a maximum two-vote margin on any committee. Now, there are five committees where Republicans have three-vote margins, which can basically cancel any Democratic attempt to influence legislation.

“We treated the minority very fairly in the committee structure," Latz says. "And they’ve turned around now and they’re treating us very unfairly. Unfortunately, it sets a tone -- I liken it to an original sin. It’s going to infect every vote that we take, and it’s going to carry with it that virus every step down the road.”

Here is a list of all the Senate committees and their party ratios: 

Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee
5 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Policy
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Capital Investment
10 (R) - 8 (DFL) 

Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy
7 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

E-12 Finance
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

E-12 Policy
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Energy and Utilities Finance and Policy
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Environment and Natural Resources Finance
7 (R) - 5 (DFL) 

Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance
7 (R) - 5 (DFL) 

8 (R) - 5 (DFL) 

Health and Human Services Finance and Policy
7 (R) - 5 (DFL) 

Higher Education Finance and Policy
5 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Human Services Reform Finance and Policy
7 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy
6 (R) - 3 (DFL) 

Local Government
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Rules and Administration
7 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

State Government Finance and Policy and Elections
6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

6 (R) - 4 (DFL) 

Transportation Finance and Policy
9 (R) - 6 (DFL) 

Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy
6 (R) - 5 (DFL)