The two House members who made their debut as committee chairs this week also share a byword: listen.
Both Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, and Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said after leading their first hearings that paying attention as fellow representatives and members of the public have their say is their most important duty as chair.
Zerwas serves as chair of the new Licensing Subcommittee of the Health and Human Services Reform Committee, while Franson chairs the new Select Committee on Affordable Child Care. House leaders announced the formation of both committees in January, and each panel held its first meeting this past week.
Another thing Zerwas and Franson have in common: The new committees were their ideas.
Franson said she began asking for her own committee on child care in 2014 to address issues she knew firsthand from running her own child care business, Merry’s Little Lamb, before she joined the Legislature. “It didn’t happen then, but you never give up,” she said. House leaders approached her toward the end of last year to see if it was something she’d still be interested in.
Zerwas said he proposed a licensing subcommittee to House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Rep. Tara Mack, R-Apple Valley, chair of the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee, shortly after the special session ended last June.
“One of my concerns with this shorter session and last year being focused on budget, I was hearing rumblings that there wasn’t going to be time for these licensing bills to be heard,” Zerwas said. “I didn’t think it was very fair to those groups to say, ‘We’re on a short session because of the schedule we picked so we’re not going to hear your bills.’”
On Monday, Zerwas’ subcommittee heard three bills that gave some idea of the breadth of health care licensing: music therapists, genetic counselors and nurses. He said his goal is for the subcommittee to meet three more times before the March 8 start of session and one more time after the session convenes. He wants the panel to hear as many bills as possible so the legislation can get a quick start on the journey through other committees.
“These bills are very complex policy bills with multiple stops” to make at House committees under a tight deadline schedule, Zerwas said. For example, bills that create a criminal penalty for violations of the terms of a license have to go to the House Public Safety Committee. “Without getting these bills kind of a running start, there just isn’t a way” for them to have a chance at becoming law, he said.
Franson convened her first committee hearing Tuesday evening in Brainerd, the first stop on a tour of the state this month to gather information and ideas from citizens. (Next week she’ll bring the committee to the Moorhead and Thief River Falls areas.)
In Brainerd, Franson said, her hearing drew “a very good crowd,” with the focus on what people in the field found burdensome or rewarding in their profession. One topic was the unavailability of infant care, because providers are scared of the “huge liability” involved.
After a busy month, Franson said committee members will examine the themes that have emerged and put together a package of legislation. “I don’t want to see a bunch of aha, gotcha bills,” Franson said. “I really want to fix the issue of a lack of providers [that is] creating a hardship.”
If other representatives had their hearts set on new committees this year, they may be disappointed. House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, told Capitol Report last week she does not anticipate forming more new committees before the start of the regular session.
Franson said her idea is for a committee that’s built around bipartisanship and kindness, which was the watchword when she ran a child care business.
Zerwas said one role model for him in serving as chair is Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, a personal friend who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. Another mentor was Tom Huntley, a DFLer from Duluth, the previous chair of the same committee.
Zerwas and Franson both put their stamps on their first committee hearings.
Zerwas, known for his love of sweet treats, graciously received, on behalf of his fellow committee members, a customary gift of snacks from a legislator making his or her first appearance before the committee. In this case it was Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, who brought Girl Scout cookies.
Franson said she ended the hearing in Brainerd by quoting a song from the “Sesame Street” television show — “Cooperation makes it happen” — as well as the teamwork song from another TV show, “Reading Rainbow.”
All the child care providers in attendance knew those words well, she said.