Reforming Government from Within
Minnesota House Speaker Targets Change
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Rep. Kurt Zellers took the reins as speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives after the 2010 elections put the Republicans in the majority. The shift in House leadership gave Republicans control of both legislative chambers for the first time in decades.
Several chambers switched from Democrat to Republican control in the
2010 election and many credit the influence of the Tea Party. What do you
think convinced voters to make these changes in general, and Minnesota in
“I think there was a focus on the fiscal responsibility, managing the budget a little bit better than it had been done in the past. I would also give a lot of credit, especially in Minnesota, to our candidates. The now majority leader Matt Dean and I made a very concerted effort to go out and recruit people that probably weren’t the first to raise their hand and say, ‘Oh yes, I’ve been on city council, then I was mayor and county commissioner and state legislator is the next logical choice.’ We went and found people who were very reluctant.
“We have a standard operating procedure where I’ll call and ask and the majority leader will call and ask, somebody from the area will call and ask (a potential candidate) to run and get involved. “Usually if we all get turned down, the last kind of best result at that point was to ask (former) Gov. (Tim) Pawlenty to call. He was a really good salesman. He could sell just about anybody. You’d want to go to war for him no matter what. ‘Your country needs you. Your state needs you,’ he’d say He’d give a great pitch. He was always kind of our ace in the hole.”
And the Tea Party influence?
“The Tea party movement and some of the influences around the country (were) in other states that didn’t have the majority. We had had the majority in 2006.
It wasn’t as if people in Minnesota didn’t trust Republicans to run the house. We had that, where those other states, they hadn’t had Republicans for decades or generations. “So I would say about 75 percent of our success was based on our candidates and then our candidates also carrying the message to their districts too, which was jobs, the economy, not spending the way we used to just because we were used to (it), but reforming government from within.”
In getting these types of people who hadn’t considered running for the
legislature before, what was their driving force?
“In a lot of cases, it was the message of, ‘We’re not going to waste your money. We’re not going to go to St. Paul and pass the same budget plus 5 percent, when every family and every business in this state has had to cut back or do a little bit more with a little bit less.’ I do think it was, in some cases, it was the best timing for them.”
What were some of the goals and successes of this session?
“There’s a whole myriad. …Being four years in majority my first two terms, four years in the minority my next two terms, I had a really good example of how things worked before … I didn’t … agree with the way (Democrats) had run the place, so we had a pretty clear vision of what we wanted to do should we be given the opportunity.
“A lot of it focused on reforming government. We had seen time and again, there’s a lot of duplication. There are five different agencies that deal with clean water in Minnesota. You can assume in the land of 10,000 lakes that’s very important to us, but when you have all that duplication, then you also have diluted responsibilities.
“We looked at it from the broader concept of, government should not force the taxpayer or business owner somebody coming to the government for a permit or a license for some sort of objective that the government has to sign off on, they shouldn’t have to chase the government around. The government should tell them where to go.
“Our driving principle was to balance the budget without a tax increase and then reform government. Instead of just going back and doing what we used to do, cut the budget 10 percent, we asked government to help it redesign itself. There are a number of initiatives from the business community, from outside agencies, from foundations. We were willing to listen to anybody and everybody who had an idea of how to be more efficient in daily function. That was our overriding principle.
“It was reforming from within and we also spent a lot of time in the two years prior to being elected to the majority traveling the state and asking business owners … what is it each and every day that makes it more difficult as a business owner, whether you’re a contractor, manufacturer, accountant, what is it?
“Without question, it was the bureaucracy. … There was just absolutely no consistency and it was across just about every different kind of agency or service or product.”
What is the best way to shrink the size of government?
“Technology is almost always a good answer no matter what it is. … It is essential all across government and you’ve got to get that duplicating process out. … We have got to use technology and focus on a smaller workforce today because in the next five years to 10 years … we’ll have to react to the 10 percent cuts or the 11 percent cuts, where this we can do in a gradual way. If someone is going to retire, we can offer them an early retirement. We know in six months they’re going to be leaving, it’s easier to then introduce technology or to consolidate those services into one office or one agency versus having them spread out over several.”
What challenges have you faced in getting some of the goals accomplished?
“With 33 freshmen out of a 72-member majority, there are lots of new people. The upside of people that are new to government (is they) have a fresh perspective. A lot of times, I would sit for an hour, two hours, three hours and answer questions from new members. ‘Why do we do budgets this way?’ ‘Why is this budget different than that budget?’ ‘Why does a tax bill have to initiate in the House?’ … But I think there’s the education process as to how the place works.
“I was in leadership before, but for a lot of people, they would not look at me in the role of speaker of the house. We had to build up a lot of trust and we had an education process, building up trust with our members and also with new staff.
“Everybody being new to the process is great in a lot of ways, but it also does present those challenges. You’ve got a very small amount of time to pass a very big budget
It’s important that everybody make sure that they have a fair say in the process, that they were consulted and their ideas were incorporated, and then also work on actually passing the bill.
“The education side and the trust side of building up that as a new caucus were probably the most challenging, but also the most rewarding.”
How has the working relationship changed in working with the other party?
“My relationship with the minority caucus has always been very good. That’s my personality probably more than anything, but I think we worked very well together.
We … have three rules: One, we act like we belong there; two, is no surprises; and the third is to be respectful of everyone at the capitol, whether it’s our staff, whether it’s Democrat members, Republican members, House or Senate.
“Our chairs, I believe, were very fair and at the end of the two-year cycle, you get a lot of nostalgia and a lot of people came up on the floor and said, ‘obviously I don’t agree with your budget or how you did things, but I really respect the way you ran the House.”
How does having a Democratic governor affect the ideas you present,
how you present them?
“I thought it was important for people to see that we can get along and be respectful of each other. It is a challenge in how you present ideas to him, how he just looks at it from a different perspective. ... You have to know the limits and where they just can’t go.
“We knew that Gov. (Mark) Dayton could not go along with some of the labor reforms. Labor unions were the only people who endorsed him in his campaign because of the wide open field when he ran for governor. … The only group that was really with Gov. Dayton when he ran was the public union employees. We knew it would be very hard for him to do anything … that would severely cut or limit or reform the way those unions worked.
“My challenge is to explain to him that our members got elected, a majority of them. We went from 47 to 72--that’s a pretty big swing across the state— and they all ran on, ‘We’ll balance the budget without raising taxes.’ My challenge was in explaining to him that what we ask you to do, you may look at us and say, ‘My gosh, there’s no way I can do that.’ You need to know that there’s also a reverse and that these folks fundamentally believe this and cannot vote for a massive tax increase to balance the budget when they just spent the last year of their life campaigning on the fact that they would not raise taxes to balance the budget.”
There’s a lot of discussion around the country about the growing partisanship
in D.C. and spreading to state capitols. Do you see there’s a good civil
discourse in the legislative process?
“If you were to ask some reporters or lobbyists, they would probably say it’s just as bad. It’s worse than it’s ever been.
“We have the same political ideological splits now. We have people on the far right and far left, just as they’ve had since the beginning of politics. Where I come down—and this came up during the government shutdown a lot—I do not see this as a personal business, ever.
“It’s a very serious business that we do. But there are a lot more important things in life than holding a grudge about somebody offering an amendment or the governor vetoing my bill or, from my personal perspective, there are very few things that I will take personal, if anything, that would lead me to make sure that some Democrat bill doesn’t come up for a vote or to make it personal with anybody.
“I think what we try especially in the House, as the Senate would say, you guys fight way more than we do. We’re always the more deliberative body. We talk about bills longer, we offer more amendments.
“I think that’s also the way that you develop those relationships. We have that from the standpoint of who and how the floor debates are carried. You develop that relationship and that trust and that respect.”
The fiscal situation seems to be improving in many states. What is the
situation like in Minnesota and to what do you attribute the situation?
“We are on much better fiscal footing. We still have some work to do. Again it’s bringing the consistency to the business community, whether it’s the small businesswoman who has a small manufacturing plant in central Minnesota or a Cargill or 3M, one of our big legacy Fortune 500 companies. Bringing that consistency to the workforce and also the economy allowed them to feel comfortable that, ‘OK. I’m not going to have more rules. There aren’t going to be more regulations that I have to spend time and money dealing with accountants or lawyers and I’m also not going to have to take money out of R&D or new hires or new acquisitions for taxes.’ I think bringing that consistency, because that’s where we were asked going across the sate. Bring some consistency.”