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Freshmen lawmakers strong in beliefs and making early impact

Sen. John Carlson of Bemidji speaks to a college student rally in front of the State Capitol. Like many freshmen lawmakers, he has not hesitated speaking out on issues. Pioneer Photo/ Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- 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."

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. Dave 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."

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."

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?'"

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.