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On first legislative day, smiles trump overwhelming challenges

If great challenges lead to great opportunities, as the old saying goes, state lawmakers have a whale of an opportunity this year.

"There are fantastic opportunities out there," rookie Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said.

He is one of 60 new legislators, mostly Republican, who took office Tuesday. Like many of the 201 lawmakers, Carlson brought family members along for the mostly ceremonial first day of the 2011 session, but he was thinking about the next few months.

"I am anxious to get through today to get to work," he said.

Lawmakers' big job, fixing a $6.2 billion state budget deficit, was on their minds Tuesday as they opened their 2011 session, but smiles dominated opening day. Few wanted to talk about the budget shortfall, and a difficulty finding middle ground between Republican legislative leaders and new Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

As the Senate opened, each senator walked to the front of the chambers to deliver an election certificate. Republicans' smiles were huge; Democrats' were much more modest. Lawmakers from both parties said they were optimistic, but some admitted to knowing things could turn south.

"Nothing has gone wrong," quipped Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker. Howes was looking forward to attacking the state's problems as a member of the majority party but also indicated he was willing to work with Democrats and was optimistic that others would be as well.

"Everything is going to be fine until someone draws the line in the sand," he said, adding that he thinks "everyone is going to be hesitant to draw that line."

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, newly elected to the upper body from the House, was among the most realistic in admitting that there will be problems between Dayton and Republicans.

"I'm not making any summer plans," Reinert said, referring to a chance that lawmakers and Dayton will not figure out how to plug the budget hole by the time the Legislature must adjourn on May 23. Some around the Capitol predict a special session will be needed to enact a two-year budget that begins on July 1.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, also had a hard time predicting an easy budget fix.

"I don't see the road just yet," he said.

For the most part, pessimism was relegated to the back burner Tuesday as all 201 legislators took their oaths of office and conducted routine business such as officially electing leaders and hiring staff for key jobs.

Republicans, especially in the Senate, are rookies at leading a legislative body.

"I just took my gavel out of the plastic bag," said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said the GOP had learned a lot in nearly 40 years being out of power, including making sure they treat the minority party well.

"It has a different feel to it, being in the majority," Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said before going in front of a camera for a symbolic swearing-in ceremony.

Gimse, new Senate Transportation Committee chairman, said the smiles will change as the session goes on. "There will be some wrangling going on."

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, was being as optimistic as possible, being in the House minority.

"We are ready to cooperate responsibly," she said, taking up a Dayton position that it likely is impossible to cut enough state spending to balance the budget.

Dayton's budget proposal is due Feb. 15, expected to be followed by a Republican counterproposal. Until then, the session work may appear slow. However, lawmakers may take up some hot-button issues, such as lifting a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction.

The main work is figuring out how to fix the $6.2 billion state budget deficit as Democrats and Republicans bring opposing ideas to the table. Dayton wants a combination of state spending cuts and increasing taxes on Minnesota's top earners. Republicans concentrate on cuts.

In his inaugural speech Monday, Dayton listed two state tax cuts in the same category as wars and recessions. "We stagger from one huge deficit to the next," he said.

New House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, sounded like someone who wants to work with Democrats.

Zellers, a Devils Lake, N.D., native, promised taxpayers that lawmakers would use their money responsibly "just like you would if you were spending them on your families' budgets."

He asked Minnesotans, whether they own businesses or make sandwiches for a living, to share any ideas they might have "to get our great state working again. ... You will lead the recovery."

He also promised Republicans and Democrats would work together to solve the state's problems.

"The campaigns are over and it is time to move forward," he said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said the atmosphere seems positive between Republicans and Democrats. He understands the magnitude of the challenge facing lawmakers but also believes lawmakers are excited to tackle the work.

"They're excited and ready to go," said Hamilton, the Republican House whip. "I am too."

Several Democrats indicated they are optimistic about working with Republicans. Rep. Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said he will embrace the role of keeping the majority party accountable, but he also is optimistic that opposing parties can work together. He was in a good mood Tuesday and said as the session starts he intends to remain optimistic that several new faces will bring about good solutions for the state.

"There is the opportunity for a successful session," he said.

Other Democrats agreed, though they don't plan to back off of their own ideals.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, promised bipartisan efforts on issues such as job creation, budget balancing and working to make government more efficient.

"That's going to be very important as we look to balance the budget," he said.

He also vowed to be vigilant in his pursuit of compromise and his defense of rural Minnesota cities. Greater Minnesota gets a lot of funding for local government aid, senior care and education.

"If we don't get that [funding], rural Minnesota is going to pay the price," he said. "It's going to be important that rural Minnesota continue to have a strong voice."