Freshmen active in Minnesota Legislature

Carlson

Some say first-year legislators are best served listening and learning, but that is not in the gene pool for the Minnesota Legislature’s 2011 rookie class.

Two months into their first legislative session, many of the 24 senators and 36 representatives serving their first terms have gained the attention of party leadership.

And the 21 new Republican senators and 33 Republican representatives, largely comprised of current or former business owners, are still standing firm in the beliefs they say got them elected: Taxes are too high and government must be reined in.

“The people that sent me and all the rest of us down here did so with the order that ‘I’ve got to live on my budget, I think the state should live on its budget,’” said Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, R-Deer River. “That hasn’t changed. They are still saying the same thing.”

McElfatrick is one of a handful who has made headlines early. She was installed in February to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

Other early movers include Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who was named an assistant majority leader before having sat a day in the Senate, and Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who authored the year’s first House bill, aimed at streamlining permitting regulations.

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, raised some eyebrows early in the session by expressing open-mindedness toward finding creative new revenue sources, at least in the short-term, if they do not involve raising taxes.

“Personally I think we get enough tax dollars,” he said. “That is the one thing we really need to keep off of the table.”

In the long run, Kriesel agrees that spending must be corralled. “We can’t keep feeding the beast,” he said.

But many have participated in less publicized ways, said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove. They are asking probing questions in committee hearings and are using their life experiences to shape legislation and improve government, he said.

“They’re doing a phenomenal job,” Zellers said. “A lot is based on the personal experiences they bring to the body.”

Fabian said he appreciated the trust his veteran colleagues placed on him to carry the permit streamlining bill.

He and fellow rookies acknowledge being surprised by the fast pace of their new jobs. But Fabian added that he was elected based on his beliefs about keeping taxes low and making Minnesota a good place to do business, and he felt a responsibility to get to work right away.

Some credit sheer numbers for the early activity of the rookie class.

“If we all sat on our hands, there would be a lot of hand sitting,” Thompson said.

Others simply say it is their responsibility to speak for those who elected them.

“We’ve got constituents back home and if we’re just sitting here and we are quiet then they aren’t being heard,” said Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas.

Still more credit their backgrounds for a willingness to jump right in. Many come from the business world and are not used to sitting quietly in the background.

“We sign the front of paychecks, not just the backs of paychecks,” said Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said rookies will not achieve all their reform goals this year. But he said proposals aimed at reforming tax policy and other elements of government will come next year and beyond.

“Reform does take awhile,” he said. “Our caucus really is looking at how do we redesign and reform government for the long run and I think some of these major overhauls we are going to look at are going to be done next year because we simply don’t have the time.”

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, is one of a few new Democrats in the House. As a member of the minority party his opportunities are fewer, but he also said that he is contributing where he can. He is working on bills that would increase penalties for repeat car break-ins, improve data collection around incidents of sexual violence and provide funds to renovate Wade Stadium in Duluth.

He and other freshmen also admit to doing a lot of listening.

“I’m still learning,” said Gauthier. “There are a lot of nuances you just don’t pick up on right away.”

Some rookies say they believe the Legislature is moving more quickly this year to pass important bills, such as those that streamlined permitting procedures and eased the path for mid-career professionals to become teachers, so there would be more free time for budget negotiations later in the legislative session.

“I’m excited about the things we can get done to live within our means and shrink government down like we said we wanted to,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo.

Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, credited senior party officials for creating realistic expectations among freshman lawmakers about what can get done in a short time. Still, with the permitting and alternative teaching bills passing he thinks the session is off to a great start.

“I think we’ve been very successful in what we’ve been able to do,” he said. “Those are really big things for us for our session priorities.”

Coming from a small business background, he still believes small government efficient I the way to go.

“Even with all we’ve learned, that’s the right route to go,” he said. “That’s what the people voted for and that’s what we are going to deliver.”

Some say they feel like after two months on the job they are finally starting to settle in.

“I’ve learned a lot and I think things are starting to fall into place,” said Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury. “I’m not saying I know it all but I feel more comfortable about how to prioritize my time.”

Kieffer attributes early successes among this year’s freshman class to it being made up of a group of “private citizens who decided to do this because we were frustrated with hearing that there were no solutions. I think a lot of us had that attitude, so we got involved.”

She is not alone in being surprised early at how fast the days pass by during the session. Several first-year lawmakers used the analogy of drinking water from a fire hose to describe the amount of information they have had to absorb in a short time.

“It’s very fast-paced, it’s very intense, much more so than I expected,” McElfatrick said.

“It is almost instant overload,” said Rep. David Hancock, R-Bemidji.

Hancock shares his fellow Republicans’ belief that government spending should decrease. This year he would like to see the budget balanced without raising taxes or increasing revenue from other sources, including fees or gambling.

Going forward, Hancock said he wants to move toward zero sum budgeting and then “when we have a reserve we can look at some of the niceties or give the money back to the people.”

Lillie laughed when recalling he had been at the Capitol a week before he learned there was a third floor. In the time since, he played a role in getting a small jobs bill – the first bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton – passed.

Lillie said he has been pleasantly surprised by how engaged his constituents are and how often they contact him. He has also been intrigued by the number of opportunities there have been to find common ground with Democrats.

Bipartisan cooperation has been eye opening to some first-year lawmakers.

Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said she is surprised at how much camaraderie she has felt between parties. She cited the cooperation in putting together the permitting and teaching bills as examples, but said even on issues in which she disagrees with her Democrat colleagues, those differences of opinion typically are voiced professionally.

She said her ability to hear both sides of an issue has improved.

“Not to say that I would change my vote,” Kiel said, but she has a greater appreciation for why people hold opposing viewpoints from hers. “Everything is important to someone.”

With budget outlines now released, Rep. Bruce Vogel, R-Willmar, is excited to start getting to the meat of the session. He has been quiet on the House floor, but he is not surprised that his fellow freshmen are making a difference early in their legislative careers.

“I think a lot of us freshmen feel that we were sent here for a reason and it was because of the stands we took,” he said.

Vogel said being raised on a farm helped him quickly become comfortable with his placement on an agriculture committee and his truck-driving background gave him some assistance with a transportation placement. He admits learning the nuances of judiciary and higher education committees have taken some time.

“I’ve worked hard at it,” he said. “I’ve put in some long days, but it has been worth it. I am pretty honored to be here.”

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said the role of government is to create good policy around four basic areas: public safety, education, infrastructure and care for vulnerable citizens. He said that he has been surprised at times by the overwhelming number of stakeholders who want to talk with him about a collection of good causes.

Carlson said he tries to focus on making sure the government fulfills its duties while being more financially responsible than it has been in the past.

“I want to make sure we create good public policy,” Carlson said. “It is easy to get swayed by stories and anecdotal evidence of this and that. We just have to take a deep breath and say ‘What is good public policy?’”

While his days are long and the work is challenging, Kriesel said he has no regrets about running for office.

“I like to be busy,” Kriesel said. “I like to meet people. I’m a pretty sociable guy and so this is the perfect job. … I’m just enjoying the heck out of it.”

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