Senate GOP is scrambling to anoint a new leader

Senators maneuver ahead of next Tuesday's election for post.

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Amy Koch

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Fresh from a scandal that toppled the head of the Minnesota Senate, Republican legislators have called for an election next Tuesday to replace their majority leader.

"The next majority leader needs to have widespread support and be someone of impeccable integrity and credentials," said freshmen Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who many insiders consider a likely candidate for the job.

Senators from various factions within the Republican Party are being coy about who's running for the top job, but several names are emerging. In addition to Thompson, they include Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie and interim Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel of Edina.

Senators are racing to rebuild their leadership before the upcoming election, even as DFLers are poised to showcase the unrest in their bid to regain control in next year's election. The leadership battle is likely to ignite a week of infighting as Republicans compete for control.

The next leader of the Senate will guide the chamber through some of the biggest issues facing the state, such as the battle over government reform, the size and scope of a new bonding bill, whether the state helps build a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings and whether it should expand gambling to do it. The new majority leader will also be counted on to be a tireless recruiter, campaigner and fundraiser to ensure the party retains control of the Senate.

While several senators are declining to comment on whether they are seeking the top spot, Sen. Michael Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, released a video this week saying he is interested in the leader's position. A spokesman for Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, who chairs the Senate Taxes Committee, said she is considering a run.

At 11 months, Sen. Amy Koch's tenure as majority leader is among the shortest back to the 1930s. Due in part to Koch's strength as a fundraiser and campaigner, Republicans last year won control of the Senate for the first time in 40 years. She resigned her leadership post last week amid allegations of an "inappropriate relationship" with a male subordinate.

The next Senate leader will also need to deal with internal budget issues, including a $2.2 million trim to meet the body's $41.4 million annual budget. Senate leaders must make cuts as part of the budget deal that broke the deadlock to end the state government shutdown last summer.

In response to a Star Tribune request, the Senate also released 2011 expenses for Koch. The Buffalo Republican was reimbursed for $30,006 in expenses this year, putting her among those receiving the largest reimbursements. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who lives 220 miles away in Cook, received the most -- just over $40,000. Newly elected Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, received the least, at $250.

The majority of Koch's expenses went for her $14,000 housing allowance and $12,000 in daily living expenses, records show. Her travel expenses were minimal: Just $90.70 during her 11 months in the Senate's most powerful position. Koch did not return calls seeking comment.

Next steps

Senators canceled a Rules Committee meeting for Wednesday where they were to have begun looking at their caucus budget, saying they want to wait for guidance from the new majority leader.

Cal Ludeman, secretary of the Senate, said Senate leaders have already been trimming costs, even with no firm budget in place. He said about 88 percent of the Senate budget goes for salaries and that in recent years, payroll has shrunk from 240 employees to 194.

Bakk said he is concerned Republicans have not paid more attention to the chamber's budget.

He said that without more reductions now, the Senate might have to make drastic cuts in the closing months of the two-year budget cycle.

Bakk said he proposed several cost-cutting ideas, but Republicans expressed no interest in them. "I want to make sure there's adequate money to get through the biennium," he said.

baird.helgeson@startribune.com • 651-222-1288 jim.ragsdale@startribune.com • 651-925-5042

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