by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political editor
From a leader in the majority to a lawmaker behind the scenes. That’s how the two-term Republican state senator from Nisswa, Sen. Paul Gazelka, describes his current role in the Minnesota Legislature.
Gazelka represents constituents in the counties of Cass, Morrison, Todd and Wadena.
Last year, Gazelka served as assistant majority leader.
This year, in the minority, Gazelka elected to not be on the leadership team and chose to not run for a leadership position. He is the minority lead on commerce and believes his background in business (State Farm Insurance agent) will aid him in giving some insight on how the Legislature can affect business. “They (businesses) are the ones that create jobs,” he said.
Interviewing in his new State Office Building digs from a constituent’s chair rather than behind his desk, Gazelka shows a relaxed manner but real concern about what he calls a “huge DFL overreach” in the Legislature. The Democrats have not had the House, Senate and Governor’s Office for some 20 years.
“There are a lot of issues coming forward that I think even some rural Democrats don’t think we should be doing,”Gazelka said. For example, he mentioned extremely restrictive gun legislation, same-sex marriage and more than $3 billion in new taxes, mostly sales taxes on everyone.
Gazelka revealed that he has received more constituent emails, over a thousand, on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Ninety-nine percent of the emails say, “Don’t restrict our Second Amendment rights,” Gazelka said.
He said he is working behind the scenes on this issue. “I think some of the rural legislators on both sides of the aisle recognize that guns are a simple tool and are not the problem,” Gazelka said. “It is by far the most passionate issue to date.”
Last session, most email response came in support of a Minnesota Vikings stadium. Gazelka voted “no” on the stadium, explaining he opposed the use of gambling as a funding source and opposed denying the people of Minnesota a chance to have a referendum on the stadium. Gazelka said he was right on the gambling argument after seeing reports that electronic pulltabs are not doing well in bringing in funds. “People did not want general fund dollars used” for a stadium, Gazelka said.
Gazelka said most people say, “Don’t you think you should be working on the budget?” It was a similar argument that was used on the Republicans two years previous, Gazelka said.
Questions and more questions come to Gazelka’s mind about the DFL’s approach to legislation early in the session. The Republicans balanced the budget two years ago without raising taxes, Gazelka said. More than $1 billion of the education shift of two years ago was also paid back.
Now, the DFL is proposing $3 billion more in new taxes. “Why would you do that?” Gazelka asked.
“Why don’t you follow the model we did that put us in a healthy place as a state?” he asked. Unemployment numbers were dramatically lower than the national average when the Republicans were in control, Gazelka recalled.
Gazelka serves on a subcommittee for tax reform and, whether he works behind the scenes or front and center, hopes some tax reform can be accomplished. He recommends giving a marital deduction that the federal government gives. He also suggested making property taxes conform to federal tax guidelines.
Gazelka is also adamant about paying back the school shift monies. “There’s not quite a billion dollars we should pay back,” he said. “It surprises me that the governor campaigned on paying back the school shift but it’s not in his budget to pay it back,” Gazelka observed.
The DFL has a plan to have the shift paid back by 2017. “You don’t add all these new programs (the governor suggests) and then hope to pay it back in 2017,” Gazelka said. “You build the budget right now,” he added.
Constituents are important to Gazelka, he said, and he uses constituent consensus to act on projects in his representation area. Looking at a possible bonding bill this session, Gazelka said he will support a proposal for funding the Camp Ripley Trail.
He said Little Falls and surrounding communities and connecting counties have been working on this project for the past few years. If the Paul Bunyan Trail and Soo Line Trail are connected, it will be the longest, contiguous tarred bike trail in the world.
It has been speculated that the Pine Grove Zoo may request bonding funds for a large-cat facility. Gazelka said he has not been contacted about this project and will wait for community consensus. “I think that is good government,” he said.
Gazelka is not sure there will be a bonding bill. He said bonding bills are unique because 41 votes – a supermajority – are needed in the Senate and thus in order to pass, the bill requires bipartisan support.
A bipartisan approach is an effective way to move other bills, too, Gazelka said. He used the example of bringing in legislators last year from both sides of the aisle on a bipartisan bill to accomplish no-fault reform and help drive down the cost of auto insurance.
Negotiation is important whether a part of the majority or minority, Gazelka said. “When I was in the majority, I built some very effective bridges with the then minority, respecting them, honoring them, listening to their bills and listening to their ideas.
“Now, the tables have turned and I am using those same relationships that I had when I was in the majority. I am now building bridges to bring my ideas forward. I think that is good government.”
Two hot issues currently being addressed by this Legislature include the governor’s sales tax proposals and DFLers pushing for gun control legislation.
Gazelka is also concerned about a number of bills not having enough conversation – for example, the Minnesota Health Care Exchange. He said the Exchange could cost people who are buying insurance, on average, about 29 percent more.
Asked about the governor’s sales tax proposals, Gazelka exclaimed: “Holy Cow!” Everything from haircuts to oil changes will be taxed, Gazelka said, and it will affect everyone. The tax on clothing “has the Mall of America scared to death,” Gazelka said, because many of the 17 million people come to the MOA from outside of Minnesota to avoid tax on clothing.
Everything “that virtually moves,” will be taxed, Gazelka said. “It is such a broad, broad tax and I haven’t heard a group that isn’t concerned about this. I talked about working behind the scenes, and my hope is that I can bring some common sense to this.”
Hearing the argument of those who say it will only affect business to business, “that’s just false,” Gazelka said.
If costs go up because of sales tax increases, businesses must make it up somewhere, meaning costs will be passed on to consumers. Gazelka said he is not opposed to broadening the tax base as long as it is not used as a revenue gainer. He said Minnesota should look at South Dakota and charge around 4 percent in sales tax rather than 7-plus percent.
With a job waiting for him as an insurance agent when he goes home from St. Paul on weekends, Gazelka sees himself doing a balancing act. “When you are a rural senator, constituents save time for you when you are home for the weekend,” Gazelka said.
Gazelka said he enjoys the Capitol work load but is “very stretched” during the session and is looking forward to a non-campaign summer in the Brainerd lakes area.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at email@example.com.