Senate GOP back in charge; DFL awaits Walz picks

Senator Howe
State Sen. Jeff Howe speaks shortly after being sworn in. The former Minnesota House member gives the GOP its one-seat majority again. Brian Bakst | MPR News

The Minnesota Senate is now officially back under Republican control.

Republican Jeff Howe was sworn in Tuesday to fill the vacancy left by state GOP Sen. Michelle Fischbach's resignation in May. She is Minnesota's lieutenant governor now but had held down both jobs all of last session, over the objection of DFLers and as litigation wore on. Fischbach took part in Howe's ceremony in in the Senate chambers.

Howe won a special election last month. His arrival breaks what had been a 33-33 tie.

Howe is from Rockville in central Minnesota and has served in the House the past six years. Had Howe remained where he was, he'd be in the minority next year given DFL gains in the 134-member House.

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"I did serve in the minority over there once. So I know what it's like to be in the minority," Howe said. "It's much better to be in the majority. You get your stuff heard, you get your stuff moved."

Howe said the tight split in the Senate will require both parties to reach across the aisle.

Howe is the second member of his family to be a state senator. His brother, John, represented the Red Wing-area for a single term earlier in the decade and ran unsuccessfully this year for secretary of state as the Republican nominee.

The slim Republican Senate majority could widen, if only temporarily, depending on how DFL Gov.-elect Tim Walz fashions his cabinet.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told MPR News that at least three DFL Senators have advised him they applied for administration jobs. He said there could be others in the mix, but only the three gave him a courtesy heads-up.

The selection of any legislators would necessitate special elections. Bakk wouldn’t identify the senators looking for appointments, but says he’s not concerned about losing ground.

"We’re in the minority now, it’s not as though it’s a game-changer," Bakk said. He said Republicans have effectively hung together to get legislation passed or prevent initiatives they don't like from advancing. "They can pass anything they want to pass as long as they have 34. It doesn't matter if I have 33 or 32. I can't prevail."

Walz, a DFLer who is in the final weeks as a southern Minnesota congressman, has yet to name any state agency leaders who would take over in early January. He received about 500 applications for nearly two dozen cabinet-level posts, aides said.

Meanwhile, the Senate put to rest one lingering issue from the Fischbach fight. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee voted 5-2 on Tuesday to pay the $147,000 legal bill incurred by Fischbach during attempts to remove her from the Legislature.

A constituent sued Fischbach earlier this year when she refused to give up her Senate seat after ascending to lieutenant governor. That happened because DFL Gov. Mark Dayton named Tina Smith to the U.S. Senate when then-Sen. Al Franken resigned. Minnesota's constitution automatically filled the lieutenant governor vacancy with the Senate president, regardless of party.

The lawsuit was later dropped when Fischbach resigned from the Senate following session. Republican Sen. Michelle Benson supported the move to have taxpayers cover Fischbach's legal bill.  Benson said Fischbach was moved against her will.

"Senator Fischbach was put in an untenable position," Benson said before the committee vote. "So, I think it is right that we as senators support that she made the best decision she could with the information she had available to her."

Republicans contend Fischbach was on solid legal ground. Democrats disagree.

Bakk said the legal bill should not be borne by taxpayers.

"I mean I think the constitution was very clear that you can’t hold two elective positions," Bakk said at the Rules Committee hearing. "I really think Senator Fischbach, when she became the lieutenant governor, should have resigned her Senate seat. We could have had a special election before the session every started."

For her part, Fischbach declined to comment on the entire episode on Tuesday.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed