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SW lawmakers take on leadership duties in new Legislature

ST. PAUL -- Two southwest Minnesota lawmakers will spearhead rural interests when the 2011 Legislature convenes at noon Jan. 4.

Sen.-elect Doug Magnus of Slayton and Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake, both part of the new Republican legislative majority, not only will lead the Legislature's two agriculture committees but also hold high overall leadership responsibilities.

In 2011, their jobs in GOP leadership may be more important than as committee chairmen, given the fact that it appears there may be little significant activity in the ag committees.

The pair, friends and former roommates, took different routes to their leadership roles.

Magnus did not seek the assistant majority leader job, but fellow Republican senators picked him while he skipped out of a meeting to attend a House retirement party. When he returned to the Senate meeting, Magnus learned about his new job when fellow Republicans congratulated him.

No Republican senator has experience being in the upper body's majority, with Democrats holding power for four decade. Magnus brings a background in the House majority that can prove helpful as Republican senators take control.

"I am helping get us started on the right foot," said the senator-elect who spent four years in the House majority and four in the minority.

Members of the majority party make most significant decisions in a legislative body, such as what bills get heard and how money is spent.

In 2009, Magnus decided he would not run for re-election to the House. But when Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, opted to retire, Magnus looked at a shrinking list of retiring farm-area lawmakers and decided he would run for the Senate to work on rural issues.

While senators like Magnus' majority-party experience, Hamilton needed to rebuild his Republican credentials.

In 2008, Hamilton became a member of the "Override Six," a half-dozen GOP House members who joined Democrats to override a Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty veto of a bill raising transportation taxes.

"It was one of the decisions I made because I thought it was the right thing to do for the people I represented," Hamilton said about highway benefits in his district that could come from more revenue.

Hamilton was in leadership then, but resigned before fellow Republicans who opposed the tax increase could vote him out.

"I knew it would take some time to rebuild the strain on some of the relationships and also to win back some of the trust of individuals," Hamilton said. "I think that is why I am so honored to be elected by my peers as majority whip. A lot can happen in two short years."

As whip, considered the third top job in the House, one of Hamilton's jobs is to make sure Republicans are staying in line with their caucus.

"I wanted to be in a position in which I help, assist the direction that the caucus is heading," he said.

Even as a leader, he added, his votes will be what are best for his district. "I am an individual, I have my own identify. I also understand the needs of the people I represent. That is not going to change."

Hamilton and Magnus are not among those who get up to speak on nearly every issue.

As Hamilton said: "My style is to sit back and listen ... and I speak when I have something to say."

Added Magnus: "In other legislators' minds, if we get up to talk, we really mean it."

Being leaders and agriculture chairmen helps their southwest area.

"It puts our areas in a real good position," said Magnus, a Vietnam War veteran and farmer who spent years as state and national soybean organization leader, visiting countries around the world.

Much of what legislative ag committees will debate likely will center on economic development and protecting the small piece of the state budget that goes to agriculture.

"We are such a small, small portion of the entire budget, but we contribute back to the state's economy in a huge way," Hamilton said. "I feel the ag budget has been disproportionately cut."

Magnus was House author of the controversial Job Opportunity Building Zones, designed to attract businesses to rural Minnesota by offering tax breaks. That has worked, he said, despite naysayers.

While JOBZ or something similar could be debated, one thing that Republicans and DFL Gov.-elect Mark Dayton agree needs to be discussed is reducing the number of state government regulations while speeding permitting processes.

"Don't tax or regulate us out of business," farmers and rural businesses have told Hamilton.

Hamilton and Magnus said details of just what they will do for farmers and rural development are being worked out, but they agree on one thing: Rural lawmakers must work together to make sure their interests are protected.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.