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Focusing on people issues

John Carlson, now in his second year as a state senator, is finding the work no less daunting. But now, rather than spending time authoring bills, Carlson spends his time helping constituents muddle through the yards of red tape which prohibit th...

John Carlson, now in his second year as a state senator, is finding the work no less daunting. But now, rather than spending time authoring bills, Carlson spends his time helping constituents muddle through the yards of red tape which prohibit them from pursuing their work or recreation.

"I don't have time to sell insurance," says Carlson, an American Family Insurance agency owner. Instead Carlson says he leaves most of the insurance matters to his wife Ann and daughter to spend more time working on constituent services.

"This is 60-80 hours a week, but I love it," Carlson told me last week. "I'm so busy with constituent services, it's just incredible."

For instance, a fellow went to the DWI court, successfully completing it and all its requirements but now still can't get a driver's license because of a change in DWI law that took effect July 1. Carlson is working on court officials and legislative researchers find out what happened and why and how to correct the problem.

Or the guy who is under contract with townships to plow roads and other such maintenance work. The law states that for contracts over $75,000 a performance bond must be obtained, Carlson said. But there is a dispute over what qualifies as a performance bond. "You dig into the statutes and it's ambiguous," he said. First, performance bonds shouldn't trigger below $100,000, and Carlson doubts that performance bonds would even be issued for road maintenance.

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And Carlson talks of a border detachment issue at Breezy Point. "You get to know who all the players are, so I talked to the government relations people with the Association of Minnesota Townships, the League of Minnesota Cities and, in this case, the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities. You get them all into a room and say here's the issue, guys. I don't know the answer because I'm not involved in this. Is there a problem with the statutes? And sure enough they agreed there was a problem. ... We got an agreement between the cities and townships that, yes, we need to tweak these laws little bit and so we wrote legislation that was good legislation instead of just trying to favor one party over another."

That's what the freshman Republican says his position as a senator should be -- that of serving as a go-between for constituents in dealing with state agencies that help run state government. That's also a reason why Senate Republicans this year plan to target government reform as one of their top goals to accomplish in this short session.

"Instead of legislation, I learned very early on you get all parties together," said Carlson. "What I am is sort of the key that they are missing. We have this party on this side of the door, and this party on the other side of the door and they have all these gatekeepers. ... It gets really frustrating whether it's a city, township or private citizen to get through the gatekeepers. All I do is pick up the phone and get right through to any commissioner. But what I'll try to do is talk to someone at the appropriate level.

"What I think a lot of people don't understand is the value of government relations folks. You can call them lobbyists. But every (state) department has them," Carlson added. "What I'm trying to do is build a relationship with them so that they know when John Carlson calls, it's not to threaten. It's to find a solution to a problem."

The Legislature needs to reform state government to the point of making it easier for citizens to conduct business and to improve the quality of life in Minnesota. Carlson believes it is not the duty of legislators to continually bicker over partisan issues, but rather to seek solutions as he has done on a constituent-by-constituent basis.

"I would love to be known as the silviculturist senator," Carlson said, referring to his lone battle in the Republican caucus to keep state forests operating. He was successful last year in obtaining a five-year reprieve for state forests. "That's the stuff I should be doing. What I'm finding out is there's a lot of stuff out there that people said no one had ever listened to them before.

"Isn't that what we're there for? I know we have to do budgets, but fixing some of the statutes that are on the books ... how are we going to do that and listen to the people are affected by them?"

Brad Swenson retired after more than three decades with the Pioneer. He was the newspaper's award-winning Opinion page and political editor. He can be reached at bswenson@paulbunyan.net .

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