Freshman class already making its mark in St. Paul

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2011 - 10:09 PM

They may have just been elected, but new legislators are not going to sit quietly until they learn the ropes. They're already proposing major bills.

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Rep. King Banaian met with advisers before heading to a committee meeting. The St. Cloud Republican is sponsoring a bill that would force state agencies to rebuild their budgets from zero.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Rookie legislators traditionally hang back and observe during their first months at the Legislature. But just weeks into the session, some of the highest-profile bills are being carried and defended by aggressive freshmen who see no reason to wait in the wings.

The new personalities in St. Paul come from all walks of life: professor, police chief, insurance agent, teacher, radio host. Their legislation, most of which has the leadership seal of approval, would radically change the state's budget, fast-track permits, freeze pay for public teachers and block state funding of abortion.

If their impact is outsized, so are their numbers. In the House, 33 of 72 Republican members are new. More than half of the Senate's new Republican majority are freshmen.

"If the freshmen sat on their hands, we'd have a lot of hand sitting," said first-term Sen. Dave Thompson, a gregarious former radio host who in one week introduced high-profile bills to freeze teacher pay and block abortion funding. The Lakeville Republican also landed a coveted leadership spot after convening a meeting of fellow newcomers.

Rep. King Banaian, an economist, is headlining a signature GOP budget bill that would force state agencies to rebuild their budgets from zero.

In what might have been considered effrontery in bygone Legislatures, Banaian went to leadership and told them he should be the chief sponsor of a premiere budget bill. "I [told leadership] I want this bill because this is what I was sent to do," said Banaian, of St. Cloud.

The sea change hasn't gone unnoticed. Dick Day, a lobbyist and 20-year Senate veteran who once led his minority caucus, said: "I have never noticed that in the past would you have freshmen legislators introducing such gigantic bills."

House Speaker Kurt Zellers carried only a handful of minor bills during his freshman year.

"There are some of our guys still that say freshmen should be seen and not heard," Zellers said. "But when freshmen can explain and ask questions better than the senior members, that kind of goes out the window."

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gen Olson, who has spent 28 years -- her entire legislative career -- in the minority, says she's not irked that the upstarts have grabbed major bills.

"For an oldie that's been around here as long as I have, it's just so refreshing to see their excitement and determination to get in, get engaged and get things done," said Olson, who signed on as the second author of Thompson's bill.

A learning process

When you're as new to the Legislature as Rep. Dan Fabian, sometimes you don't even realize you've become a player.

A soft-spoken teacher from Roseau, Fabian was selected for a plane trip to northern Minnesota with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL Sen. Larry Stumpf. Fabian's a Republican, but the senator high-fived him for carrying the environmental bill that had been designated House File 1. Fabian hadn't realized the designation carried any status.

"A good friend of mine says when I came down and I opened my door, I knew as much about the legislative process as hogs do about Sunday school," Fabian said. "I'm getting better at it."

Fabian has had to get better in a hurry. "We don't do mock rehearsals around here," he said.

On the other side of the aisle, St. Paul Police Chief-turned-DFL senator John Harrington is drafting a sure-to-be-controversial bill that would allow felons to vote after they are released from custody. Harrington said the legislation would encourage ex-convicts to reintegrate with society.

"This fits my personal background [in law enforcement] and I think perhaps I'll get listened to," Harrington said after a recent committee hearing in which Thompson defended his education bill. "We'll find out."

First-time Sen. Paul Gazelka, who served one term in the House several years ago, is pushing legislation to cut permit time for businesses, tighten the state's welfare system and impose legislative term limits.

"We are not a class that will be seen and not heard," said Gazelka, a Brainerd insurance agent.

The biggest test of the new Republican majority came Thursday evening, when House leaders called a floor vote on $1 billion in budget cuts as a down payment on cutting the state's projected $6.2 billion deficit. The bill passed 68-63, with four freshman Republicans joining the DFLers who voted against the bill. Among the four was Banaian.

The bill would extend emergency cuts last year that would affect St. Cloud State University, where Banaian works, as well as local hospitals and the city of St. Cloud, which lost $2.7 million in state aid under last year's measures.

He said that because previous federal stimulus dollars have dried up, another round of cuts would disproportionately affect higher education in his district.

Banaian also said his constituents asked him to use his skills as an economist to redesign the budget.

"This bill doesn't do that," he said.

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210

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