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Insiders get to know this year’s rookies

Mike Mullen//April 1, 2015

Insiders get to know this year’s rookies

Mike Mullen//April 1, 2015

Most legislative duties are sort of familiar for Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia. As a former mayor of that city, Nash is used to maintaining constituent relations, and committee hearings remind him of municipal meetings, just in a slightly larger setting.

But Nash is still getting used to the enormous and awe-inspiring workspace that is the House of Representatives chamber.

“I’m overwhelmed by the honor, and when you look around that chamber, it’s really something else,” Nash said.

He’s not the only one adjusting to the tall ceiling and spacious surroundings. Nash is one of two-dozen “true” freshmen in the House this year. (Other members are technically new to the body, but regained a seat in 2014 that they had previously held.) While lawmakers get to know the setting and workload, lobbyists and staff are getting to know the freshman class, and Nash’s name was mentioned by several Capitol insiders as a rookie worth watching.

Gary Carlson, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, noted the Republican’s experience in municipal leadership as a helpful addition to the lower chamber.

“He really shares his local government roots quite regularly,” Carlson said. “It’s been, from my perspective, nice to have somebody in the Legislature that understands local governments.”

Nash’s mayoral stint informs his views on a number of issues, including local government aid (LGA). He described LGA money as an “ephemeral funding source,” and one that cities should not count on to make ends meet.

“It’s not reliable,” Nash said. “As a mayor, I would’ve almost rather that we had not gotten it, and just budgeted accordingly.”

Several mayors have already approached Nash to talk about LGA, but for now, he remains more interested in passing tax cuts that could stimulate local economies.

Nash’s other chief objective this session is substantive reform to the Metropolitan Council, which, he said, has outgrown its original purpose as a regional planning authority. Nash is vice chair on the Legislative Commission on Metropolitan Government, a newly formed body that is looking to pare down the Met Council’s authority and introduce “electoral accountability,” Nash said.

His broader interest in cutting down on government expenses is shared by Rep. Roz Peterson, R-Lakeville, another new member who several insiders said has already distinguished herself. Peterson eagerly stepped into the major controversy to emerge so far this session, authoring a bill that would restore legislative control over executive branch salaries after Gov. Mark Dayton gave raises to his Cabinet members.

“It seemed a little confusing to me, because it was part of the deficiency [budget] bill,” Peterson said. “So the same commissioners that were looking for additional money, because they were over budget, were also looking for salary increases.”

Peterson faced some strong opposition from Democrats, both in committee and on the floor, but the provision eventually made it into the heavily debated bill. (Both Peterson and Nash, given their interests, will undoubtedly be interested in the Associated Press report that Dayton had enacted a salary increase for Met Council chairman Adam Duininck, though lawmakers had expected otherwise.)

As she learns her role on the job, Peterson said she has looked to Reps. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, and Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, for guidance, and is still in frequent contact with former longtime legislator Mary Liz Holberg, who represented the Lakeville area for eight terms.

“[Holberg] has this wealth of institutional knowledge,” Peterson said. “She can tell you everything that happened, in, you know, 2002.”

Marty Seifert, a former House GOP leader who lobbies for the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, complimented Peterson for being “well-studied” and “business savvy,” and said her profile as a small-business owner and school board member suits her suburban district.

“If [Republicans] could replicate [Peterson] a half-dozen times in the suburbs, I think they could pick a few seats up,” Seifert joked.

Also drawing plaudits on the Republican side was Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, whose studiousness has impressed Jim Abeler. Abeler, a lobbyist who represented Whelan’s district before retiring last year, said he liked the “analytical” approach.

“If you go and chat with [Whelan] on a topic, she’ll take a page of notes,” Abeler said.

One Democrat, meanwhile, has been surprised by Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, who won election in his deeply conservative district by ousting David FitzSimmons, a Republican supporter of gay marriage. Lucero had avoided even local media during his campaign, but the DFLer said he has proven “extreme and ideological, but fairly bright.”

On the DFL side, Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, was praised for being well-versed on issues and a capable networker: Seifert recalled that Pinto approached him one day in the Capitol to introduce himself.

“If [Pinto] wants to stick around in the legislative process, eventually be one of those thoughtful leaders in the DFL caucus,” Carlson said.

Several observers also pointed to Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, for her firm grounding on health and human services topics. Schultz, a health care economics professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, wasted no time putting that expertise to use, and spoke of a marathon committee debate she and Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, spent convincing Republicans to back an amendment.

The proposal gives greater authority to the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) to investigate the flow of taxpayer money into the state’s health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Schultz said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, initially rejected the amendment out of hand, and he and other Republicans tried to question her on details in the provision.

“[Dean] doesn’t know my background,” Schultz said. “I knew everything in that bill.”

After four hours, and an extended committee recess, the amendment was adopted, marking a victory for the rookie lawmaker. Schultz said substantive debate has been difficult this session, especially around health care topics, as so much of the discussion has been colored by partisan rancor over MNsure. Schultz said Republicans are mostly “sticking to their national message,” especially on the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, while she has been working with MNsure CEO Scott Leitz to craft legislation that might leave a more self-sufficient exchange.

“That’s my plan,” Schultz said. “But it takes a long time. In a session that’s a budget year, there’s a very limited amount of time to go off and work on something like that.”

One other DFL freshman who drew multiple mentions was Rep. John Applebaum, DFL-Minnetonka, an attorney who won the seat formerly held by Democrat John Benson. Thom Petersen, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Farmers Union, said Applebaum had come forward with some “very interesting” bills as a member of the House Agriculture Finance Committee.

Applebaum’s district includes the headquarters for Cargill Inc., the agriculture and commodities conglomerate, and Petersen commented that the DFLer had made the most of his appointment.

“Getting stuck on an agriculture committee can be kind of a penance, for a suburban legislator,” Petersen said. “But instead of sulking, or doing anything like that, I think [Applebaum] has kind of embraced it, and looked at it as an opportunity.”

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