Amy Koch: Inside the cage match

I put in a request for an interview with Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch a couple of weeks ago. Senator Koch is one of the Republican legislative leaders — the other is House Speaker Kurt Zellers — who is negotiating with Governor Mark Dayton in the epic budget battle/government shutdown that is playing itself out in Minnesota. If the budget battle is a cage match, as we have characterized it, Senator Koch is one of the three principal combatants.

Yesterday Senator Koch returned my call and gave me thirty minutes of her time on a busy day. I also followed up on her weekly blogger conference call yesterday evening. On both occasions Senator Koch was incredibly forthright and forthcoming. She has a lot to say that hasn’t made it into the local coverage of the budget battle (some of it on background) — and not because it isn’t interesting or relevant.

Representing Senate District 19 since 2005, Senator Koch is an impressive public servant. She is a fourth generation resident of Wright County who grew up with five brothers and sisters on the family farm outside of Buffalo in Chatham township. She graduated from Buffalo High School and attended Concordia College in Moorhead before enlisting in the US Air Force in 1992. She went on to serve as a Russian linguist, graduating from the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, California, before assignment to the National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland. She was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal for her contributions to the intelligence community.

I originally asked Senator Koch for the interview to get her sense of the morale of her troops in the state senate. The question is even more pertinent now that we are in to Day 6 of Minnesota Held Hostage. Senator Koch referred to the reports she received yesterday from her colleagues who had marched in July 4 parades on Monday. She said that they came from especially difficult districts and felt that the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. She believes that Minnesotans generally understand that the budget problem is a spending problem. On this point she has previously cited the recent KSTP/SurveyUSA poll results.

She added that her colleagues were “confident in the budget they passed. It lives within our means and gets spending under control.”

I asked Senator Koch about the “council of wise men” convened by former Vice President Mondale and former Governor Carlson. The committee was being announced as we spoke. She said that she was willing to listen to anyone who had an idea about how to resolve the impasse, but that there were three parties at the table who needed to reach agreement. She would not say anything disrespectful of the concept, but I sense that her attitude is not too far from that of the statement issued by the Minnesota Republican Party. Incidentally, if the committee were a Broadway show, it would be closing today.

Senator Koch provided a detailed account of the breakdown of negotiations this past Thursday leading to the shutdown. Senator Koch cited the parties’ offer sheets that have now been posted on the Internet. She pointed specifically to the offer presented by Governor Dayton himself — “MBD Offer 6/30/11″ — that she thought would provide the outline of a resolution. In this offer Governor Dayton introduced the idea of shifting school aid payments from 70/30 to 50/50 and took his proposed top tier income tax rate off the table.

Here let me pause to note that Rachel Stassen-Berger et al. at the Minneapolis Star Tribune have failed to get this right despite the fact that the documents have been made available to them and that Senator Koch herself explained them to Stassen-Berger this past Saturday. The Star Tribune threw four reporters, including Stassen-Berger, into reporting the breakdown of negotiations and still couldn’t get it right. According to the Star Tribune: “The GOP proposed delaying another $700 million in payments owed to schools, which would add to the more than $1 billion the state already owes K-12 schools.” On the contrary, however, the idea came from Governor Dayton.

This is an error that has been propagated far and wide thanks to the Star Tribune. See, for example, Brian Lambert’s round-up of coverage yesterday quoting Rex Smith of the Albany Times-Union (“you would think Dayton might have the upper hand in an argument with Republican legislators who want to close a state budget gap by delaying $1.7 billion in school aid…”).

The governor’s offer of June 30 belies another of Stassen-Berger’s themes. In “Dayton’s moment to decide,” Stassen-Berger purports to summarize the impasse that has produced the shutdown. According to Stassen-Berger, Dayton faces a stark choice: “Dayton must decide whether to stick to his principles against determined opponents, or seek a fresh, if painful, compromise.” Stassen-Berger somehow omitted any reference to Dayton’s June 30 offer in her account.

At this point in the negotiations Senator Koch thought the parties were within a few hours of closing a deal. When she and Zellers returned that afternoon, however, with a counter that followed up on the governor’s offer, the governor took it off the table.

What happened? Given the pitiful press coverage of this critical moment, we are left to speculate. (Senator Koch herself would not speculate on the record.)

Governor Dayton is a man of many moods and subject to conflicting forces. I believe along with many others that Governor Dayton wants the shutdown that is now upon us. If so, however, he must not be free from ambivalence about it.

As for the pitiful press coverage, Senator Koch would only say: “I’ve heard about media bias. But I’ve never personally experienced it myself before.”

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