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'Acting lieutenant governor' quiet first day on job

Minnesota state Senate President Michelle Fischbach tells reporters on Dec. 13, 2017, that she plans to serve both as a senator and lieutenant governor. She automatically moved into that position at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2018, when Lt. Gov. Tina Smith resigned to become U.S. senator. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota state Senate President Michelle Fischbach calls herself "acting lieutenant governor," but has not talked publicly about the job she just inherited.

The Republican senator issued a statement Wednesday, Jan. 3, giving no indication that she plans to be an active No. 2 to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

"My primary focus will continue to be serving the citizens of Senate District 13 in the Minnesota Senate, who elected me to a four-year term," the Paynesville resident said in her statement. "The position of lieutenant governor has no constitutional duties and its authority is what is provided by the governor."

Fischbach mostly stayed out of the public eye Wednesday, although she sat in the audience of a Capitol Security Committee meeting which state law requires the lieutenant governor to chair.

She and Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, were expected on Wednesday to talk to the media about the senator replacing Tina Smith as lieutenant governor. Instead, a staffer said via email on Wednesday, "Sorry — just the statement today."

Fischbach asked state financial officials not to pay her the lieutenant governor's salary, adding that she will continue to take the lower salary paid senators. While a Dayton administration attorney says the Constitution requires her to be paid, Fischbach wrote in a letter that she disagrees and "I do not intend to accept the salary prescribed for the lieutenant governor."

Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook, say the state Constitution does not allow a person to serve in two branches of government. Fischbach now is in the legislative branch as a senator and the executive branch as lieutenant governor.

Bakk has said he will take Fischbach to court if she still is in the Senate when lawmakers return to session on Feb. 20.

He sent Fischbach a letter Wednesday warning that her action is unconstitutional, and addressed her as if she no longer is a senator.

"As your former colleague," he wrote, "I respectfully ask you to formally acknowledge that you no longer hold the office of state senator...."

Republicans say that Fischbach is only a temporary lieutenant governor, and an 1898 court case allows her to serve in both jobs for a short time. Her executive branch duties end when Dayton leaves office at the beginning of 2019.

The Constitution requires the Senate president to become lieutenant governor when there is an opening in that office. Smith left the job at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday so she could be sworn in as U.S. senator 12 hours later.

Fischbach automatically became lieutenant governor, and no ceremony is planned to swear her in.

"I am confident I will be able to handle duties as both state senator and acting lieutenant governor through the remaining months of Gov. Dayton's term," Fishbach's statement said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.