Rookie lawmakers face deficit right off
ST. PAUL - It is tough to be a new Minnesota legislator this year, facing what many predict will be a $7 billion budget deficit.
"Even the veterans haven't had experience with a budget (deficit) this big or an economy this bad," Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. "I'm just listening and seeing what others are saying and I try to offer my new perspective where I can."
Even a normal session - one without a huge deficit to plug - is tough on new legislators. The budget problem just makes it more difficult for 23 freshmen - 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats - who began their service on Jan. 6, following orientation seminars offered by the House.
Anderson said that beyond the deficit, the entire experience has been a steep learning curve. "There is such a deluge of information coming my way. It's a little overwhelming. I am always wondering what to save and what not to save."
Some rookies look at the massive deficit as a wake-up call.
"As a state and country we have been living beyond our means," Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said. "This is an opportunity to put us back on our footing. We should pay our bills and make a positive impact fiscally."
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, admits that he was naive about the budget.
"It first felt like whirlwind," Kelly said. "Now I am getting a little antsy to get something moving. I am naïve about this massive deficit problem. I thought it would get the ball moving."
Kelly said he ran into something similar to this on the school board in Red Wing. It had to cut 10 percent of the budget during his two-year term. "I'm not as apprehensive, I think, because I've dealt with this on a smaller scale."
Rep. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, relates to a tight budget, too. He dealt with something similar when he was Duluth City Council president.
"We had to make lots of cuts in Duluth," he said. "We closed parks, shortened library hours. I've been through the hell. I came in saying to people, 'Set priorities and make it happen.' If they don't work, we'll make new priorities. For good or bad, Duluth prepared me."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's State of State address inspired Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail. He agrees with Pawlenty that the solution for the deficit starts at home. He thinks that each individual household needs to look at what they can do without, and it moves up from there, to the city, county, and state levels.
"I think we need to take a more common sense and open minded approach," Murdock said. "I worked in retail hardware -- it's a people business. It prepared me to keep my head screwed on straight."
The duration of the deficit is disheartening for Rep. Philip Sterner, DFL-Rosemount.
"It's very daunting when you are trying to look at the end of it," he said. "I'll try my own part and try to put a face to the cuts we are discussing."
After two years as Pope County commissioner, Anderson said he was ready to run for the Legislature. His work with local government has helped him.
"A local government background is key to the process," he said. "I want to make it more of a two-way dialogue on budget items between states, counties and cities."
Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, follows in the shadow of the Peterson family, who has held the office for more than a decade, but this does not intimidate him, he is getting the hang of things.
"It's great. I feel adopted into the Peterson family," he said. "I think a new legacy is starting here."
He is looking at the budget in two ways and is ready to be a part of a fix.
"It's a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity," Falk said. "I think some fundamental structural changes need to be looked at how we deliver services. This should be looked at not in a dollar sense, but at the services themselves."
The deficit may be a challenge for a freshman, but Kelly said he won the lottery in another area, with his legislative assistant. "She has a lot of experience. That's huge. Some mistakes I might have made she has the right insight to help that from happening."
As Kelly settles in, he reflects on the campaign. "It's really nice to have the campaign over. Everyone is a peer now. We are all here to represent our constituents."
Kelly said he has received good advice from both parties and that a lot of people are willing to give advice, which he finds comforting.
Murdock, in his first political role, said he has had an interest in politics for a long time.
"I've always had an interest in watching the races. My mother was very involved in politics while I was growing up," he said. "When Rep. Dean Simpson came to ask if I wanted to run, I thought, 'You don't know until you try.'"
Simpson, R-Perham, was helpful during the campaign, Murdock said.
"He still calls me every 10 days or so," Murdock said. "You could say that we got elected. One thing Dean didn't tell me about was the deficit."
Persell feels settled into his new office and looks at the budget as an opportunity.
"It's certainly as faced paced and busy as people told me it would be. The e-mails make it more busy," he said with a laugh. "I look at challenges as opportunities. I always have."
This is Persell's first partisan political experience, but not his first time near politics. He served on the Soil and Water Conservation District in Bemidji for four years. This experience helped him, he said.
"It's important to gain good grassroots experience," he said. "I am not a stranger to the process - now I'm on the other side of the table, as it were."
Reinert loves working in Legislature. "I'm getting a PhD in government. It's the educator and student in me loving this high level."
There is a flipside to this though because he has big shoes to fill and expectations to meet. "People know me, so expectations are high. They are expecting me to be effective right away. So I've put in a lot of long hours here."
Sterner said that as a former Rosemount city councilman, he has a wealth of resources. It has been helpful knowing about local governments with his civic experience. "By knowing local governments I've been helpful in knowing a lot of contacts."
Sterner is ambitious in his new role.
"I'd like to find solutions, eliminate mandates and create jobs. I am hoping to get a couple bills through too," he said. "I am going to us the resources of the state of Minnesota."
Anderson is a University of Minnesota journalism student working for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau.