A new class of state lawmakers filed into the ornate House chamber Wednesday afternoon for a presentation on decorum, some posing for selfies before taking a seat behind desks that do not yet bear their names.
The 39 new members of the Minnesota House — some of whom are returning after a term or two out of office — are in the middle of a crash course on how the Legislature works. The large freshman class will constitute more than a quarter of all state House members, and 45 percent of Democrats, when the Legislature convenes Jan. 8.
“We’re learning the nuts and bolts — how to create a bill and get it through committees, and just the detail-y things of what it will mean to be a legislator,” said Rep.-elect Kelly Morrison of Deephaven, one of the many new Democrats who ousted a Republican incumbent and helped put the DFL in control of the House.
The first-timers must quickly familiarize themselves with the procedural information, because a much more complex challenge looms: working on the policy and spending plans that will affect Minnesotans for years to come.
The new legislators, 34 Democrats and five Republicans, will inherit a number of issues left unfinished last session, including altering the state tax code to align with federal policy changes.
While they will not be the prominent figures brokering deals with the Senate’s Republican majority, the freshmen will be involved in creating a nearly $50 billion two-year budget. And they will advocate for their own priorities — several new members have cited health care costs, gun violence and education funding as areas of focus.
As legislators were getting familiar with the Capitol, Gov.-elect Tim Walz and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan were preparing to head out on a five-day listening tour. Walz is in the midst of hiring people to lead state agencies and wants to ask Minnesotans about what they want to see in the new commissioners.
“From Luverne to La Crescent to Hallock to Grand Portage, we will travel to all four corners of the state to seek input from Minnesotans on what they hope for from our administration,” Walz said in a statement.
The tour announcement noted they will be inviting state legislators to attend the meetings, which will include events at small businesses, community roundtables and visits to veterans homes.
But for much of Thursday and Friday, new lawmakers will be at a Chaska conference center.
After participating in a mock committee meeting, listening to various presentations and taking in a bit of Capitol history Wednesday, the group piled in a bus bound for a two-night retreat in Chaska. On the docket: more informational sessions, and some bonding — of the icebreaker sort, not the kind that pays for roads and bridges.
Rep.-elect Tou Xiong, D-Maplewood, said he expects to learn more about the budget and policy process over the next month. He plans to reach out to veteran Democrats from nearby districts for advice on how to tackle the priorities he and others heard about on the campaign trail.
Xiong, who previously worked as the legislative liaison for the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, was one of several freshmen who said the halls of the Capitol weren’t entirely unfamiliar. Incoming legislator and former Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke said he had been there to advocate for his city in the past. But as Xiong and Tabke headed into a presentation by the chief sergeant-at-arms, they both noted there is still a lot to learn.
“It’s a well-oiled machine that we’re trying to fit into,” Tabke, a Democrat, said.
It’s typical for people to come in with “freshman-itis,” with ideas of how the Legislature works and their place in it, and it can take a while to learn what the reality is, said House Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park. She said her goal for the new members is to place people in positions where their strengths are best utilized.
Another goal for Hortman is legislative process reform. During the campaign, candidates on both sides of the aisle were reminded that people were frustrated by how the 2018 session ended. Many spending and policy changes, which constituted the bulk of the work that session, were loaded into one 990-page omnibus bill — which Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed.
Leaders in the incoming Democratic House majority said they want the process to be more orderly and transparent.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, D-Winona, led two meetings this week where lobbyists, advocates and an expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures suggested potential changes.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, several freshman legislators were at the table.