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Freshmen legislators are learning quickly about the state's economic challenges

WILLMAR -- In days that begin at 7:30 a.m. and don't often end until 2 a.m., freshman legislator Andrew Falk is in the midst of one of the most challenging -- and he says interesting -- times in Minnesota legislative history.

The DFLer from Murdock, who was elected to the House of Representatives from District 20A in November, said the $5 billion state deficit makes this "one of the best times" to be a new legislator.

"We'll have experiences that some have never had in their legislative careers," he said.

Those experiences will include hard looks at the workings of state departments and making painful decisions about which programs get funded and which ones don't.

"If you're going to learn, this is the time to learn," said Falk who, at age 25, is the second youngest state legislator currently serving in Minnesota. Tara Mack, a Republican from Apple Valley is two months younger, he said.

Baptism by fire is one way to learn, but the harsh economic realities and the tough decisions that need to be made won't be pleasant, said Rep. Paul Anderson, a freshman legislator from District 13A.

The Starbuck Republican said he's quickly learning the ropes and coping with the "hectic pace of meeting people" during days that easily stretch out to 13 hours.

"It's an overwhelming deluge of information," said Anderson. "The learning curve is really high."

The two freshmen said every day at the Capitol is a steady flow of meeting with constituents, going to committee meetings and floor sessions, taking phone calls, reading at least 100 emails a day, researching issues, filing paperwork and meeting lobbyists.

"It's amazing how many needs and wants that people have," said Anderson.

"During the day it's just constant," said Falk, who, as vice-chairman of a committee, has already had the chance to chair a meeting when the chairmen had to leave early.

While learning how to operate the Capitol phone system and memorizing the names of lobbyists is part of the process of being a new legislator, both Anderson and Falk are acutely aware that the state deficit is the gorilla in the room that they will know very well by the time the session is over.

"The numbers themselves are imposing," said Anderson. But what really "brings it home" is hearing from local city, school and county officials about what it'll mean to local services if funding is cut.

"I hope people are realistic," said Anderson, giving fair warning to what may lay ahead.

He said everyone should be prepared to ask themselves "what we'd be willing to give up" because the state "just can't afford the way it's going right now."

Although the Governor's budget-cutting plan includes using money from the federal stimulus package, Anderson is hesitant to rely on that until it's a done deal. "I was taught as a farmer never to count your grain until it's in the grain bin," he said.

Falk said the demands of the deficit presents a "tremendous challenge but an equally tremendous opportunity" to see how government works and create a "transparency" in the process.

House DFLers will be holding community meetings to get feed-back on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal. One of these meetings will be Feb. 19 in Willmar.

It'll be an opportunity for community leaders and citizens to voice their opinions and offer suggestions, said Falk. "Listening first is the best thing we can do," he said. "We're all in this together."

Despite the mountain-high financial challenges the state is facing, Falk said he's glad he has his new job. "I'm always happy to be here," he said. "I show up every day with a smile on my face."

Anderson echoed that. "I'm thankful and honored to be here."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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