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New Senate leader not just a happy face

ST. PAUL -- New Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, can be as tough as anyone when he negotiates with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, one of his assistants said.

Geoff Michel (center)
Dave Senjem (left), Geoff Michel (center) and David Hann speak about Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch's resignation Dec. 16 at the State Capitol in St. Paul. Senjem won Koch's job by a single vote in a closed-door meeting last month.

ST. PAUL -- New Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, can be as tough as anyone when he negotiates with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, one of his assistants said.

Senjem is known as a nice guy, but one whose negotiations skills with Democrats have not been tested.

"Dave brings a lot of institution knowledge, a lot of leadership knowledge," said Assistant Majority Leader Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. "A very familiar face."

Senjem took power at the end of 2011 after Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, resigned the leadership position, admitting to having an inappropriate relationship with a Senate employee she supervised.

A Senate GOP communications staffer is lining up five-minute media interviews with Koch on Tuesday, the opening day of the 2012 legislative session.

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While she has said little in public since the relationship was reported, she did issue an apology. She did a series of short telephone interviews when she quit a leader, but that was before the relationship was revealed.

Koch said she would stay in the Senate for the rest of her term.

Senjem won the job Koch held for a year by a single vote in an 11-hour closed-door meeting late last month.

Repaying schools

With a potential budget surplus on the horizon, some legislators hope to repay schools that had funding delayed in July's budget agreement.

"Hopefully, the economic forecast will continue to improve for the state," said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove. "That will allow the Legislature to decide on some things we can do to help put us back on track."

Legislators will get an updated forecast Feb. 29 and hope for more good news, but schools should not get their hopes up. Current law requires the surplus, less than $1 billion, to remain in reserve for emergencies and to provide the state enough money to pay its bills.

Some lawmakers say expanding gambling to help fund a Vikings football stadium also could bring in enough money to pay back schools.

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Teacher changes?

Education reform is on the table again heading into the session, at least in the eyes of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Bill Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs and business development, said the organization would like layoffs, when necessary, to be based on merit. The quality of a teacher's evaluations is a better measure of who should stay or go than seniority, he said.

"We need to move away from this outdated model," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, fears a Republican government reform proposal would eliminate the tenure concept in state schools.

Energy questions

Some lawmakers are pushing for a resolution to nuclear waste storage issues as a federal storage site remains uncertain.

The federal government is required to remove nuclear waste from plants and store it, but hasn't done so.

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Legislators said there also will be a focus on other energy projects in the coming session, including wind farms.

"We need to, as a state, help give direction and clarify where we put these developments and make sure that if it's supposed to benefit the community, that's what it will actually do," said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing.

Howe advocated for more local control on energy projects.

More TB work

State and federal officials gathered last month to celebrate the designation of Minnesota being free from bovine tuberculosis.

But Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said farmers in his northwestern district still are hurt by the disease that affected cattle. In the area where the outbreak was discovered, cattle producers "are still subjected to almost all of the restrictions and almost all of the requirements that were in place," he said.

Fabian said he is working on legislation that would help more than 20 farmers who remain fiscally affected.

Those farmers still are banned from raising cattle.

Helping employers

Some companies are having difficulties finding employees with the right skills, and the Legislature should help fix that, said Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake.

"We should try and find some ways to provide new training in colleges that more specifically meet the needs of employers," he said. "It's an issue statewide, particularly in rural areas."

However, if it costs money, changes are doubtful in higher education this year.

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that other than looking at some projects such as fixing campus buildings, there will be no new money for state-run colleges and universities.

Basic teacher skills

Another attempt to require teachers to pass basic skills tests in reading, writing and math before going in front of classes will be made this year.

The House and Senate passed a measure to do that last year, but it was vetoed.

Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, said she will bring up the bill again, tuned to make it acceptable to the governor. She said wants to introduce it the first day lawmakers are in session.

Current law requires a basic skills test, but allows teachers in classrooms even if they fail the test.

On the fast track

At least one rural legislator offers a bill every year to raise the speed limit.

This year, Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, is writing that bill.

"I think 60 is a reasonable speed limit," he said about rural roads with good visibility.

New budget plan

Bill Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs and business development for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is working on a two-year proposal that would redesign the state's budgeting and tax systems.

In 2012, the chamber will focus on fundamental changes to the way the state adopts its budget.

The chamber will propose a system that is based on outcomes, Blazar said. The governor and Legislature would first agree on the amount of revenue that is available and then on key spending priorities.

The new model would build accountability into the budgeting system, he said, because those items would only receive funding if they are attached to measurable outcomes "to make sure the money we invested in each priority was producing the outcome everybody had agreed upon."

That would be a major change from the current process, which largely builds a new two-year budget around the figures programs had received during the previous biennium.

Minneapolis-based freelancer Andrew Tellijohn contributed to this story. Don Davis and Danielle Nordine report for Forum Communications Co.

Related Topics: DAVE SENJEM
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