ST. PAUL -- After eight terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Torrey Westrom was elected to the Minnesota Senate this November. His Senate run left a seat in the House open, which his former teacher and wrestling coach, Jay McNamar, was elected to fill.
In interviews at the capitol this week, the two discussed how they are adjusting to their new roles, their goals for the session, and legislation that they are working on together to help their constituents in west central Minnesota.
Education, local government passions for McNamar
Freshman representative McNamar - who is in good company with 62 other new lawmakers - said his first weeks in the legislature have been hectic but "awesome."
"When I sat down in the session, I'm looking at a piece of history ... I never thought I'd ever be there," said McNamar. "It's also overwhelming; we just have a lot of stuff thrown at us. ... I want to do a good job for our constituents, the people of District 12A."
As a former teacher, McNamar said education, from early childhood through higher education, is a priority. Already, McNamar has signed onto several bills, including one that would pay back the funding shift from local schools.
However, McNamar said he's realized that to achieve the three goals he campaigned on - paying back the school shift, restoring government aid to cities and counties, and lowering property taxes - the state economy needs to turn around.
To support those objectives, he has also signed on to bills on property tax relief for homeowners and renters, an investment fund to relocate business into Minnesota, and a fund to promote Minnesota exports.
McNamar has been assigned to three committees: Agriculture Policy, Capital Investment, and Judiciary Finance and Policy. McNamar said he specifically requested to serve on the Judiciary Finance and Policy committee so he can work to make sure the courthouses in all of District 12A's county seats are staffed by judges.
Westrom voices consistent principles in new role as senator
After 16 years in the House, Westrom said he'll have to adjust to both a new physical location and the protocol in the Senate, where men can't appear on the floor without a tie and no food or drinks are allowed.
"It's been a joke, all the years that I've been here, everyone says that's part of where the Senate gets their stuffy image," said Westrom. "In the House, it's a little feistier. The body is twice as big, and I've absolutely noticed that - it's so small in the Senate."
Westrom said he is pleased with the committees he has been assigned, which cover similar topics to his committees in the House: the Senate's Transportation and Public Safety Committee and the Finance Committee, as well as the Finance Committee Divisions of Transportation and Public Safety and Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture.
At the beginning of the session, House Republicans voiced their objections to consider funding for the environment, economic development, and agriculture in the same committee. Westrom said he agrees, and is worried about what he sees as competing interests and agendas between environmentalists and the agriculture community.
"Lobbyists and groups pushing for more environmental control are usually directly adverse to a farmer's interest with the land or their livestock," said Westrom.
For Westrom, balancing the state budget will remain a top priority, and he hopes that the small projected deficit will bring forth the opportunity to include government reform measures in any budget package.
"The best opportunity you have for making those changes is when there's a shortage of money," said Westrom. "You have to get the bureaucrats kicked aside from defending their positions because sometimes paperwork means jobs for bureaucrats."
For example, Westrom said he would like to continue looking into using a private prison in Appleton and focusing state subsidy and rebate programs on people with lower incomes.
During the last session, the Republican majority touted a plan called Reform 2.0 to promote their government reform measures, a plan Westrom said still has "many good ideas" that he hopes will still be embraced.
"With the change in majorities, I recognize that Reform 2.0 might not be the title they want to run with, but whatever the Democrats want to put on it for a label, it's still good government reform that needs to happen," said Westrom.
Partnering across the Legislature and across the aisle
Just two weeks into the session, and Westrom and McNamar are already working together on two pieces of legislation and have plans to look into a third specifically targeted towards concerns in District 12.
After meetings with representatives from the Cyrus and Morris school districts, the legislators are working on special legislation that would help facilitate the consolidation between the two districts by allowing the Cyrus School Board to bond for the cost of demolishing their school building.
They are also putting together a bill that would make purchasing a new 800 megahertz public safety radio system, Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response, exempt from sales tax - a request from a radio group in Grant County, said McNamar.
The pair is also looking into developing legislation that would support rural nursing homes. If the legislature does vote to increase reimbursement rates for nursing homes, Westrom said he would push to narrow the gap between the reimbursement rates for metro and rural facilities.
"Nursing homes are some of the biggest employers in our small communities," said McNamar. "The money that's generated for those employees is important to our communities. But the services they provide are services that no one else can do."
Don Davis with the Forum News Service contributed to this story.