By Danielle Killey and Don Davis. Forum News Service
ST. PAUL — The scene was much like the first day of school or a family reunion as 62 new lawmakers experienced their first legislative session day Tuesday at the Minnesota Capitol alongside returning senators and representatives.
Senators lined up outside a committee meeting room-turned-photo-studio to get photos taken of their mock swearing in.
Families of new and returning lawmakers toured the state Capitol, seeing an ornate chandelier hanging a few feet off the floor to give visitors a better look than in its usual place at the top of the interior dome.
Friends and family sat in legislative chairs, snapped pictures and shared food during a day-long celebration.
Legislators hugged old friends and met new fellow lawmakers.
“It feels great. I’ve got the whole family here,” newly elected Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. “We’re ready to do the hard lifting now, but it’s nice to celebrate with the family first.”
The sons of newly elected Rep. Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, waited for her to wrap up a pre-session meeting. Jeff, 24, and John, 21, tried out her chair, as did her husband, Doug, and saw the view she has of the speaker of the House.
“Pretty sweet, pretty cool, exciting,” is how Jeff Sawatzky said he felt.
The young men, who last were in the Capitol during sixth-grade tours, said their mother always is looking for ways to help others, and being a legislator is a good way to do that.
After being sworn in, Rep. Sawatzky did not want to talk about the controversy of the day — whether agriculture was given a less important position than usual. Instead, she said, she was elected to bring sides together.
“That is what it is all about,” she said.
“I plan on working with legislators no matter which side of the aisle they are on,” Sawatzky said. “In my opinion, that’s the best way to responsibly solve our state budget deficit and put Minnesota back on the path to economic prosperity.
After taking the oath of office, senators cheered, clapped and waved to family and friends in the gallery. And then it was time to dive in.
“People ask me if I’m ready,” said a new senator, Bill Weber, R-Luverne. “Until you jump in the middle and start paddling, you don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
Some lawmakers are not new to St. Paul, but are now in a different chamber. Eken made the transition to the Senate after serving in the state House, a shift a number of former representatives have made in what Eken called a “House invasion of the Senate.”
Newly elected lawmakers have spent the months following the Nov. 6 election meeting with local groups and residents and getting up to speed on the issues and procedures at the Capitol.
“We’re getting past the campaign themes and seeing what the real issues are,” Weber said.
Lawmakers have listed issues such as taxes, job creation and economic development, agriculture and education as other key topics. But the budget will come first.
“There are a lot of high expectations that need to be tempered with the fact that we are facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit,” Eken said. “It’s a tall order.”
“There are difficult challenges ahead, but I am confident we can set clear priorities, fairly balance the budget and continue working on getting our economy back on track,” Rep. Ben Lien, DFL-Moorhead, said.
Lien, like most other new lawmakers, said he wants to avoid partisanship. “I really do hope people will cross party lines.”
He said his most important goal is to help border cities compete with North Dakota and South Dakota, which have more favorable taxing systems for businesses.
“It’s been a pretty smooth transition so far,” Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said.
“There are some big challenges,” Schmit said. “We really have to hit the ground running from day one.”
“We will have our differences,” Assistant Majority Leader Katie Sieben said, but urged lawmakers to focus on what they have in common. “We stand as Minnesotans.”
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, followed his father, who was a senator from 1983 to 1990. And despite time he spent in the Capitol with him, the new representative said it was an exciting day.
“I know the process,” Anderson said. “But I’m in the minority; I don’t know what to expect.”
Even if Republicans have little to say in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, Anderson said he will have a job: “Taking care of constituents always is No. 1.”
His area of central Minnesota includes farms and resorts, which he said gives him “a different balance.”
One of many lawmakers who were out of the Legislature and returned Tuesday, mostly Democrats who Republicans upset two years ago, Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, said he values the job more now that he was gone a couple of years.
“You have to seize the moment,” Faust said. “You never know.”
His second time around, he added, provides “a new appreciation” for serving.
Faust echoed other Democrats’ comments about his goal for the session: “Show what good government is supposed to be.”