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Freshmen lawmakers find some surprises at Minn. Capitol

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ST. PAUL — The public often sees lawmakers fight, debate and disagree. But new Minnesota legislators say people might not be getting the whole picture.

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By Danielle Killey

Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — The public often sees lawmakers fight, debate and disagree. But new Minnesota legislators say people might not be getting the whole picture.

“I think people would be surprised how much we get along,” Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, said. “We are like everyone else. We talk about football, we talk about our families, we talk about other things important to Minnesotans.”

New lawmakers said that is just one of many surprises as their first session nears its end by May 20.

Many had some expectations, but said the experience has been more exhausting, frustrating, rewarding and exciting than they thought.

Democrat freshmen felt the weight of their party’s control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time in two decades.

“Just because you can do whatever you want, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a good thing for all issues,” Baudette Democrat Rep. Roger Erickson said.

“It’s an exciting time,” Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said. “It’s also a sobering time because whatever happens is your responsibility.”

New Republican lawmakers were more frustrated with their roles.

“You certainly approach things differently,” Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said.

Weber said Republicans’ focus is on offering alternatives to Democrat plans and making things “less bad.”

Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, said it has been hard to be in the minority.

“It has been frustrating at times,” he said. He said he decided not to move many of his bills forward this year because he knew they would not pass.

“The partisanship on certain things does surprise me,” Green said.

One-party control has not necessarily been easy for Democrats. There is plenty of contentious debate among members.

“Just because you’re in the same party doesn’t mean you always agree,” Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said. “We come from different areas of the state with different needs, and that comes out.”

For Clausen, it came out in a vote on the Democratic tax bill. He initially voted against the plan and the bill failed. When it came up for reconsideration, after a quick meeting among Democrats, he switched his vote.

He was concerned about some pieces such as income tax changes, but he said he realized he had to pay for initiatives he had supported such as increased funding for schools.

“I’m not willing to compromise those investments, so I changed my vote,” he said, adding the bill still could change as it goes through a conference committee.

The varied budget and policy plans from leadership surprised some new Republicans.

“It seems to me to be rather surprising with one party being in control of both houses of the Legislature and governor’s office there’s such a wide variation as there is in the bills,” Weber said.

Green said he also did not anticipate the amount of tax increases and some other proposals from Democrats.

Erickson said some issues he has seen involve rural and Twin Cities metro area legislators with different priorities.

“They’re different, but no less important,” Erickson said. “You come to appreciate what they need.”

Schoen said it is not necessarily a matter of Democrats disagreeing with each other or with Republicans.

“You have 201 different people, 202 with the governor, in this place,” he said. “Everybody has a different personality and style.”

Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he thinks the differences can be worked out. “I know we have different ideas but I think we can demonstrate that we can come together and compromise.”

Schoen said outside core party issues, there is a lot of cooperation.

“Everyone here cares about Minnesota,” he said. “They just have some different ideas on what is best.”

Many new legislators said this session has gone by quickly, a blur of new information, paperwork, meetings and votes.

“Chaotic. Intense,” said Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, describing the past few months. “This is not a retirement job,” he joked.

There were a few days of orientation before the session started, Simonson said, which helped legislators jump in on Jan. 8.

“There’s really no on-the-job training,” he said. “There’s no time for anything but getting right to work.”

McNamar said he is happy with the outcome.

“We’ve gotten so much done for the state this year,” he said.

And it is the results that ultimately count, Erickson said.

“In the end it matters what bills we pass,” he said. “That’s what we’ll be judged on, what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

“We’re getting good things done for the state of Minnesota and for my area of west-central Minnesota,” McNamar said.

“It’s an adventure,” Schoen said.

“These have been the fastest four months of my life, but I think they’ve been incredibly productive,” Schmit said. “I’m looking forward to leaving on time with a good (budget) package.”

“The first year is always a learning experience,” Clausen said. “I have enjoyed the learning process.”

“The thing that has surprised me most is just the quantity of things that happen here,” Simonson said.

“Obviously you’re not totally prepared for it until you’re totally immersed in it,” Weber said.

Weber said he has enjoyed his first year in the Legislature but is disappointed so far in the results of the session.

“If there’s going to be anything at this point that characterizes my impression of this session it’s that it has been a huge grow-government and not grow-Minnesota session,” he said.

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