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Rapid session greets Minnesota legislative freshmen

ST. PAUL - Andrew Lang's job is not exactly what his 6- and 9-year-old sons expected.When he was elected to public office for the first time in November, the boys thought he would serve in the Imperial Senate on a floating pod. They were slightly...

Minnesota state Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing wonders on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, if a bill providing tax breaks to teachers who get advanced degrees in the fields they teach would help speciality teachers. Don Davis / Forum News Service
Minnesota state Rep. Julie Sandstede of Hibbing wonders on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, if a bill providing tax breaks to teachers who get advanced degrees in the fields they teach would help speciality teachers. Don Davis / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL - Andrew Lang's job is not exactly what his 6- and 9-year-old sons expected.

When he was elected to public office for the first time in November, the boys thought he would serve in the Imperial Senate on a floating pod. They were slightly disappointed to learn their dad would legislate in Minnesota rather than the First Galactic Empire of "Star Wars."

Still, the boys attended Gov. Mark Dayton's signing of Lang's first passed Senate bill Feb. 17. They even got a couple of hockey sticks from the governor's office out of it.

The bill, which funds a $35 million farmer loan program, passed without opposition on the Senate floor.

Lang, a Republican from Olivia, said he had prepared for at least some pushback, but the unanimous approval came after no debate.

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Among his jobs as a state senator, county parks supervisor and an Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Lang said time constraints have been one of the most difficult challenges during the rapid-fire first couple months of the session.

Other freshmen lawmakers agree.

Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, usually arrives at his office between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. Among floor sessions, committee meetings and meeting with constituents, his days can often end as late as 8:30 p.m.

"It's fast-paced, a lot faster than I thought," he said. "My schedule is back-to-back. It amazes me the amount of research that is required to do this job the right way and trying to find time to do that is a challenge. I don't like to be caught off guard with things."

The fast pace was something Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, had prepared for, but she expected it to pick up later in the session. However, she said, the speed of the session has not been a bad thing.

"It's a good thing for our constituents, because there are so many things we want to get done, and we're dealing with a little bit of the carry-over from last session," she said.

As a constituent following politics through the news, fellow Red Wing GOP Sen. Mike Goggin said that he had hoped for cooperation with colleagues across the aisle, but had braced himself for conflict.

He said he has so far been surprised by the level of cooperation.

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"I'm really encouraged because we're getting a lot of bipartisan support," he said. "That really is satisfying to see. I was openly optimistic and was encouraged to go down that path of working together, and so far that's happened."

Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, credited the cooperation to a tone set by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, at the start of the session.

"Building bridges has been something the majority leader has talked about, and I took that to heart as well," Eichorn said. "I'm in an area where we've got a lot of DFLers, so it was important to me to try to build bridges within our own party, but build bridges with other members of our Senate."

Those bridges, however, have yet to provide a dependable path for some Democrat newcomers.

On a personal level, Rep. Julie Sandstede, D-Hibbing, said lawmakers usually maintain a respectful rapport with one another, but bouts of "bad policy" ignore "glaring inequalities" throughout the state.

"There are so many bills and issues that are really genuinely not partisan and impact all of Minnesota," she said. "If we could just work together a little more before getting to the House floor, we could get things done and I don't think there's quite enough of that happening."

Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, said the differences in opinion are often assets rather than detriments to tackling issues.

"In the end, if we all show up with the same mindset, we wouldn't get as much done," he said. "When you have differences in opinion, you discuss more and different parts of that issue, and a lot of times you come up with a better solution."

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Bliss said his family's military background and his constituent's values have influenced his legislative priorities for veteran's issues.

A bill he authored with Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, another rookie, has "rattled the cages" on a decade-long pursuit of a veteran's home in Bemidji.

Although he is a legislative newcomer, Bliss said that might work to his advantage as he and fellow freshmen Grossel and Eichorn work to secure the funding.

"We don't know the proper way and proper protocol, so maybe we're shaking things that haven't been shaken before," he said.

Despite a packed schedule, Bliss said he strives to keep up dialogue with his constituents. He said that communication had lagged in previous years.

"In general, I didn't feel that St. Paul was responding to our local community, and I'm really trying to be available," he said. "I may not agree with constituents, by the record results I don't agree with 46 percent of them, but I'm still their representative and I will still listen to them.

Haley said staff like nonpartisan research teams have played an important role in her smooth transition into her job at the Capitol.

"As a layperson or normal constituent, I had no idea the depth of the staff here and the resources that come into building good legislation," she said. "It's very impressive. It doesn't matter what party you're with, it's good knowing there's a lot of very smart, dedicated people that are working on everyone's behalf."

Even with the support of Capitol staff, Haley said she has had to adjust to a schedule stacked with a variety of issues.

At the end of the day, she sometimes is not sure how to answer the question "What did you do today?"

"Some nights, you can't even unravel that whole ball of yarn," she said. "The issues span from healthcare to education, to intricate policy on all kinds of subjects, and that could be a different subject every 15 minutes all day long."

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