Senate Republicans, newly ensconced in the majority following a sweeping victory in the recent election, struck a conciliatory tone Tuesday while announcing their committee chairs.
“What we really want to focus on out of the blocks are the things we all agree are important,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, the newly elected Republican majority leader from Nisswa.
That means tax cuts, road and bridge spending and a special emphasis on health care, Gazelka said at a news conference.
“That’s where our focus is going to be. Beyond that … if one of us disagrees, then that’s something we cannot do,” he said, referring to contentious social issues like abortion or guns.
Senate Republicans, who have controlled the upper chamber just two of the past 44 years, hold a 34-33 majority, effectively giving every GOP member a veto. Veteran Republicans also remember their 2011-12 majority and their aggressive, conservative agenda, after which they were swept from office in a landslide.
Gazelka said the new committee structure illustrates the health care focus: Three committees will deal with health and human services.
Gazelka said he has talked to two GOP U.S. Senators recently who told him to be ready to deal with the ramifications of repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. President-elect Donald Trump has made the Obamacare repeal a signature initiative of his campaign, leaving a lot of uncertainty for states like Minnesota, which was an aggressive and early adopter of the health insurance overhaul.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders are in talks to give relief to the 5 percent of Minnesotans who buy their health insurance on the individual market and are seeing premiums skyrocket 50 percent or more even as they confront restricted access to their doctors and hospitals.
Gazelka said Minnesota was better off under a previous health care model that mixed public programs, private coverage and a high-risk health insurance pool to cover those with pre-existing conditions.
The high-risk pool required a cash infusion from state government three times between 1997 and 2006, when health care costs for those patients outstripped revenue.
Since the passage of Minnesota’s own version of the ACA — forbidding insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and expanding Medical Assistance, among other changes — the state’s uninsured rate has dropped from 10 percent to 5 percent, covering about 200,000 more people.
House Republicans, who retained their majority in the election, also announced committee chairs. They are mostly unchanged, although two key issues will see new chairmen: Rep. Dan Fabian, of Roseau, becomes chair of environment while Rep. Paul Torkelson, of Hanska, will be transportation chair, after the departure of two GOP chairmen.