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Legislative notebook: 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.

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," Assistant Majority Leader Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said. "A very familiar face. A person who can make you comfortable when you come to a meeting, and he also can handle the real tough meetings."

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. She has not talked in public about the situation.

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

While she has not spoken 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.

"She will have folks like yourself maybe following along and asking her questions," Senjem told reporters. "We are just going to have to move through that day and maybe a couple of days."

Senjem said that Republicans will not file an ethics charge against Koch and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said she should remain in office.

However, Bakk said Senjem's colleagues should offer an apology. "The institution has been tarnished."

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

While Dayton criticized Republicans in general for refusing to compromise last year, he said he likes Senjem and the chief House negotiator, Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove.

Ingebrigtsen said Senjem has "that diplomacy about him" and said "he is not going to poke anyone in the eye and go out."

Putting a nice guy in charge of the caucus is not a bad thing, the Alexandria senator said. "There is nothing wrong with Republicans being liked."

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," Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said. "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.

"That could give us a little room once we've fulfilled our statutory obligations ... and maybe some extra dollars to start paying back the schools," Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said.

Schools should not get their hopes up. Current law requires the surplus, less than $1 billion, to go 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.

Education reform is on the table again heading into the 2012 legislative 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.

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

"We're going to put more pressure on the federal government to hold up their end and find a solution," Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said.

Howe's district includes Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear plant.

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

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," Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said.

Howe advocated for more local control on energy projects.

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.

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

"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.

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.

Minneapolis-based freelancer Andrew Tellijohn contributed to this story.