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State Rep. Kerry Gauthier of Duluth testifies in front of the House Veterans Services Division. Also testifying in favor of a bill to reduce veteran homelessness are Reps. Kathy Lohmer of Lake Elmo and Terry Morrow of St. Peter. Lohmer and Gautheir are first-year lawmakers. (Minnesota House photo)

Kieffer, Lohmer, Lillie settling in at Capitol

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Kieffer, Lohmer, Lillie settling in at Capitol
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

ST. PAUL -- Some say first-year legislators are best served listening and learning, but that is not in the gene pool for the Minnesota Legislature's 2011 rookie class.

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Two months into their first legislative session, many of the 24 senators and 36 representatives serving their first terms have gained the attention of party leadership.

And the 21 new Republican senators and 33 Republican representatives, largely comprised of current or former business owners, are still standing firm in the beliefs they say got them elected: Taxes are too high and government must be reined in.

"The people that sent me and all the rest of us down here did so with the order that 'I've got to live on my budget, I think the state should live on its budget,'" said Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, R-Deer River. "That hasn't changed. They are still saying the same thing."

McElfatrick is one of a handful who has made headlines early. She was installed in February to the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

Other early movers include Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, who was named an assistant majority leader before having sat a day in the Senate, and Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who authored the year's first House bill, aimed at streamlining permitting regulations.

Some rookies say they believe the Legislature is moving more quickly this year to pass important bills, such as those that streamlined permitting procedures and eased the path for mid-career professionals to become teachers, so there would be more free time for budget negotiations later in the legislative session.

"I'm excited about the things we can get done to live within our means and shrink government down like we said we wanted to," said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Lake Elmo.

Some say they feel like after two months on the job they are finally starting to settle in.

"I've learned a lot and I think things are starting to fall into place," said Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury. "I'm not saying I know it all but I feel more comfortable about how to prioritize my time."

Kieffer attributes early successes among this year's freshman class to it being made up of a group of "private citizens who decided to do this because we were frustrated with hearing that there were no solutions. I think a lot of us had that attitude, so we got involved."

Rep. John Kriesel, R-Cottage Grove, raised some eyebrows early in the session by expressing open-mindedness toward finding creative new revenue sources, at least in the short-term, if they do not involve raising taxes.

"Personally I think we get enough tax dollars," he said. "That is the one thing we really need to keep off of the table."

In the long run, Kriesel agrees that spending must be corralled. "We can't keep feeding the beast," he said.

But many have participated in less publicized ways, said House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove. They are asking probing questions in committee hearings and are using their life experiences to shape legislation and improve government, he said.

"They're doing a phenomenal job," Zellers said. "A lot is based on the personal experiences they bring to the body."

Fabian said he appreciated the trust his veteran colleagues placed on him to carry the permit streamlining bill.

He and fellow rookies acknowledge being surprised by the fast pace of their new jobs. But Fabian added that he was elected based on his beliefs about keeping taxes low and making Minnesota a good place to do business, and he felt a responsibility to get to work right away.

Some credit sheer numbers for the early activity of the rookie class.

"If we all sat on our hands, there would be a lot of hand sitting," Thompson said.

Others simply say it is their responsibility to speak for those who elected them.

"We've got constituents back home and if we're just sitting here and we are quiet then they aren't being heard," said Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas.

Still more credit their backgrounds for a willingness to jump right in. Many come from the business world and are not used to sitting quietly in the background.

"We sign the front of paychecks, not just the backs of paychecks," said Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo.

Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, said rookies will not achieve all their reform goals this year. But he said proposals aimed at reforming tax policy and other elements of government will come next year and beyond.

"Reform does take awhile," he said. "Our caucus really is looking at how do we redesign and reform government for the long run and I think some of these major overhauls we are going to look at are going to be done next year because we simply don't have the time."

Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, is one of a few new Democrats in the House. As a member of the minority party his opportunities are fewer, but he also said that he is contributing where he can. He is working on bills that would increase penalties for repeat car break-ins, improve data collection around incidents of sexual violence and provide funds to renovate Wade Stadium in Duluth.

He and other freshmen also admit to doing a lot of listening.

"I'm still learning," said Gauthier. "There are a lot of nuances you just don't pick up on right away."

Andrew Tellijohn is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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