The huge freshman class of Republican legislators has already learned a lot in its two months at the state Capitol.
Rep. King Banaian, for example, a freshman legislator from St. Cloud, has learned that even many of the people he disagrees with are great colleagues.
“Tom Rukavina is a delightful character,” said the conservative Banaian of the populist DFLer from Virginia. “It would be a sadder place if he wasn’t here.”
Rep. Andrea Kieffer, a first-year legislator from Woodbury, has learned that the legislative workload is far heavier than most outsiders appreciate.
New appreciation for workload
“I have a different perspective than I had,” Kieffer said. “There’s a tremendous amount of time and effort in this job.”
But one thing the freshmen don’t seem to be picking up on is the concept of “compromise,” not at least on the basic principle that led to most of them being elected. That principle is that the state must live within its means. And that means: NO NEW TAXES.
Because of their numbers, what these freshmen think means a lot as the governor and the Legislature approach the $5 billion budget deficit from entirely different perspectives.
Recall again the numbers: Of the 72 Republican House members, 33 are first-termers. In the Senate, 21 of the 37 Republicans are new. It was this first-year class that gave the Republicans its majority.
Most in the class have lost a little of their campaign swagger as they deal with the complexity of the issues.
Banaian, an economics professor at St. Cloud State University, is almost humbled when talking about the realities of the budget.
“Every dollar we talk about doesn’t have just one interest group — there are multiple layers,” he said. “I’ve got people taking 15 or 30 minutes defending $1 million. One million dollars is 1/32,000th of the budget we’re dealing with. That’s how precious dollars are.
“Everything we’re dealing with is the function of hundreds of decisions that were made before we ever got here. Most of those decisions were made with the best of intentions. But they calcify, and they get harder and harder to move.”
Still, Banaian believes the freshmen will be of one voice when the final budget dealing is done.
“The budget must be resolved without a tax increase,” he said. “Nobody I know of ran on saying, ‘Let’s try a balanced approach.’ ”
A special session?
Doesn’t scare these freshmen.
“If I need to be around here until Christmas, then I’ll go out and buy a Christmas tree and put it in my office,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, a rookie from Lakeville.
‘Fire in the belly’
Although Thompson said he can’t speak for all the first-term Republicans, he does believe legislative rookies may have a little more “fire in the belly” than veteran legislators.
“I don’t think any of us [freshmen] are here to turn the institution upside down, but I think you’re looking at a large class for a reason,” Thompson said. “The electorate was looking for something different; the electorate was looking for people who don’t think like career politicians.”
Compromise on a budget deal?
“In the past,”Thompson said, “you may have seen an attitude here of ‘Let’s just get a deal done and go home.’ I don’t think you will be seeing that from this group.”
An aside here on Banaian and Thompson: Both had radio talk shows prior to being elected. Neither was shy about expressing strong, critical opinions about the work being done in the Capitol.
How do they feel about their radio work after becoming a legislator?
“I don’t know if I could go back to political radio,” Banaian said. “I was a bit of a jerk when I was on radio.”
Thompson, to date, is less apologetic about his conservative radio commentary.
“I don’t think I was a fire-breather,” he said. “I might have spoken badly of policy, but I didn’t do the name-calling some do. Oh, sometimes I used a little humor at people’s expense.”
An example of that humor?
“Whenever I’d mention Hilary Clinton, we’d play ‘Witchy Woman,’ but that was just fun.”
Back to the premise: Do these freshmen have a little more idealistic starch in their shirts and blouses than their elders?
Probably. But in most cases, their Republican elders aren’t going to be quick to buckle to any budget compromise deals, either.
Yes, there are whispers among some Republicans about creating a few dollars in new revenue by closing a loophole here and there. But at this point, it’s hard to imagine either Republican rookies or veterans grabbing on to any of the many olive branches being held out to them by Gov. Mark Dayton.
New legislators — and new leaders, too
And remember, Republican leadership is new, too. Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, House Speaker Kurt Zellers and House Majority Leader Matt Dean are all in their first years in these big leadership positions.
Like the freshmen they are surrounded by, Koch, Zellers and Dean seem to have a belief that the electorate called them to this time and place to do Minnesota’s business differently.
Zellers came in with a huge class himself — the class of 2002, in which 32 Republicans were swept into the House (some were swept out starting with the elections of 2005). He sees nothing doctrinaire or radical in the thinking of Republican leadership and this freshman class.
“From what I see, they’re more pragmatic and determined than my class was,” he said.
Zellers, who constantly sings the praises of business, is thrilled that there are a number of small-business owners in this class.
“They get it,” Zellers said. “You don’t spend what you don’t have. The thing I hear over and over again is that we [Minnesota] have to be more competitive.”
These freshmen will be willing to compromise, Zellers predicted.
“They know they don’t get everything you want,” he said.
But compromise will come only within the framework “of spending only what’s in the checkbook. We are NOT raising taxes.”
For all she’s learned, Woodbury’s Kieffer underscores that point. Yes, she has a new appreciation for how hard people at the Capitol work. Yes, most of her colleagues of both parties seem like good and earnest people. But the spending ….
“Enough is enough,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Already, however, Republican freshmen have learned an old lesson. It’s much easier to say “cut” than it is to do it.
On the first day of the session, Banaian was said by leadership to be one of their superstars and their economic guru. “Our Wayne Gretzky” is how Zellers described him in hockey terms.
But then came the first budget-cutting effort of the new Republican majority, a $1 billion effort that was quickly vetoed by Dayton.
Banaian was one of two Republicans who voted against the Republican cutting plan.
“The higher-ed piece was the worst for me,” said Banaian. “It [higher ed] is going to get cut, but I thought this was disproportionate on higher ed. I’m in a district with two [higher ed] institutions. I said to the leaders, ‘This is a terrible spot to put me in.’ ”
There was a second factor that disturbed Banaian about the first Republican effort at coming up with an all-cuts budget.
“This proposal was simply an extension of an agreement between a DFL Legislature and Gov. Pawlenty,” he said. “That was last year. I thought it was the wrong thing to do. We need to start over.”
Banaian believes the only way to come up with an all-cuts budget is to use a zero-based-budgeting system. Essentially, that means starting the entire state budget at zero and go over everything the state spends, virtually line by line. He acknowledges that can’t be done in one session. But he also says Republicans won’t be able to successfully cut using a few budget crib sheets. They need to pore over the state’s books.
One other reality: Lots of close elections
Banaian’s presence in the Legislature reflects another reality of this class. Large numbers of the freshmen won by the slimmest of margins (including Banaian, who won his recount by eight votes). Anyone who wants to be re-elected is going to have to be sensitive to the impact cuts will have on their respective districts.
It’s easy to be glib about the reality of re-election.
Thompson, for example, says that he will “term limit” himself. He plans to leave after no more than 10 years.
“This is a dangerous place for one’s character,” Thompson said of his first months at the Capitol. “We live in a world of respect and deference. I can see how it would be pretty easy to lose the fire in your belly around here. I can see, if you stay too long, that you could start making little deals with your principles. I can see how you’d start thinking about the next election. I have to remind myself that no matter how often people open doors for me, say ‘Good morning, Senator,’ I have to remain a humble public servant and remember why people sent me here.”
Banaian says he will not allow himself to ponder the closeness of his election as Republicans create their all-cuts budget.
“Two years is all I’ve got promised to me,” he said. “I’d like a second term only because if you win re-election, it’s because people think your ideas are good and you’ve done a good job. That would be a mark of approval. But all I’ve got coming is two years. I tell myself, ‘OK, let’s get this done.’ ”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.