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Editorial: Minnesota Senate staff cuts need a do-over

He "is described as a gentleman and statesman by those on both sides of the aisle," the Mankato Free Press editorialized in December when Republican state Sen. Dave Senjem became Senate majority leader.

"And if he leads in ways that reflect how his character and leadership style have been portrayed in the media so far, he should be able to draw broader support for the Republican Party among the general population and with independents."

Well, now's his chance:

Republican senators appear at fault in a nasty abuse-of-power episode that surfaced on the first day of the 2012 session.

The word is "appear" because maybe the GOP senators are blameless. But if they're not -- if the episode is as rabidly partisan as Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, declares -- then Senjem should stand tall, admit he and his caucus were wrong and strive to make things right.

That's what a "gentleman and statesman" would do, after all. And it's a fence-mending gesture that would get the session off to a exceptional start.

Here's how describes what happened:

"Minnesota Republicans have found a way to reduce the Senate's deficit. They're going to make the Democrats pay for it.

"Republicans voted to reduce DFL staff at the Senate by more than $400,000 -- meaning the DFL will have to lay off 12 to 14 people of its 43-person staff.

"Republicans will not reduce their staff of 73 people at all. Republicans had promised to reduce Senate costs as part of last year's budget agreement."

After reading this description, you might think what the Republican senators did was wildly unfair.

You'd be right, Bakk said.

With this decision, "the Republican majority engaged in one of the most shameful actions I've ever seen at the Capitol," Bakk said in a press conference.

Moreover, Bakk eviscerated the GOP claims that because the DFL had been in the majority for so long, the DFL budget even after the cuts would exceed that of the new-to-the-majority Republicans. DFLers examined the Senate staff roster, and "what we found disproves the claims of the Republican members," Bakk said.

"Is the Senate DFL minority budget larger than the Republican majority? No.

"In terms of total staff salary, the Senate Republican budget is over 60 percent larger than the staffing budget in our caucus."

And "in reality, if we were to make the Republicans' proposed $440,000 cut to our staff, the Republicans would have $925,000 more to spend on noncommittee staff than our caucus.

"That means that the claim made by the Republican leaders -- that our caucus would have $160,000 more to serve fewer members -- was wrong by over $1 million."

Sen. Julianne Ortmann, R-Chanhassen and Senjem's deputy majority leader, dismissed all this as "inside baseball.

"I'm not sure Minnesotans really need to hear and read all about this," she said at a press conference. "I'm not sure why it's being aired in media."

But one answer could be that previous staff cuts were handled more equitably and didn't prompt angry complaints. This round appears to be very different -- and as a result, Majority Leader Senjem should examine Bakk's claims in a spirit of bipartisanship, fairness and respect.