HJ/EDEnterprise Dispatch, Feb. 27, 2006

Tony Onnen: life after legislature leads to services for disabled

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Tony Onnen’s life before, during and after his 20 years in the Minnesota Legislature has always been in response to the questions, “Lord, why do you want me here? How can I contribute?”

When Onnen left the legislature in 1996, he went to work full-time as an administrator for Mykkanen Foster and Waivered Services. It provides services for developmentally disabled people so they can live as independently as they can, he said.

Mykkanen works with people in group homes, families and foster care in McLeod, Meeker and Wright Counties.

Onnen’s background in health care, business experience, knowledge of how government works, especially the legislature, led him to the Mykkanen office at 635 Seventh St. in Cokato.

“The Lord directs our steps,” Onnen said.

Onnen, originally from Hebron, Neb., told a story about how his steps had been diverted from being an attorney to being a businessman. He intended to go into the Reserve Officers Training Corp, ROTC, while he was at the University of Nebraska. The money he earned from being an officer in the reserves would go to funding his law studies, Onnen said.

He was rejected from the ROTC, though, because tests showed he had too much sugar in his urine. At the same time, his father, who refused to go to the doctor, became ill. Because of the results of his tests for the ROTC, Onnen told his father and family his dad’s condition was probably diabetes.

This convinced his father to go to a doctor, just in the nick of time. If his father would have waited another day, the doctor said he might have gone into a diabetic coma, Onnen said.

Oddly enough, Onnen never had sugar in his urine since then, but that is how Onnen went into business instead of law, he said.

The business background “taught me patience,” Onnen said. He recalled some legislation he was sure had a “better way” to get to the same result. The other legislators warned him not to try to amend the legislation because the legislator who authored it was a tyrant and would “eat him alive,” Onnen was told.

Onnen decided to talk to this legislator. Instead of getting his hackles up, the legislator agreed to amend it.

“Treat one another in a sensible way,” Onnen said, is better than treating fellow legislators as partisan adversaries.

It was the health care business that led him to the legislature. Onnen had just started a tax and accounting business in Cokato in 1975, when he was asked to help his former employer, St. Mary’s Care Center of Winsted, with its financial needs, he said.

St. Mary’s needed test samples taken to the Twin Cities periodically. A business that routinely took bank statements to Minneapolis volunteered to deliver the samples at the same time. Eventually, the business applied for a permit to take the samples on a regular basis, Onnen said.

Onnen was called to testify at the capitol in St. Paul that St. Mary’s needed this service. Another competing firm wanted the delivery business and complained that Onnen didn’t consult them before using the service St. Mary’s had, he said.

Onnen was disgusted with how the attorneys for the other delivery firm stretched out the hearing, and demanded he consult them before making a business decision for St. Mary’s.

“I was upset how firms misuse government,” Onnen said.

So when the late Arnie Bang of Cokato asked Onnen to convene the Republican precinct caucus in Cokato Township, Onnen agreed, although he had never gone to a precinct caucus before, he said.

Later, the Cokato area needed a Republican candidate to run against the incumbent state representative. “Tony, you should go,” he was told by area Republicans.

Onnen lost in 1976, but won in 1977 in a special election when the incumbent chose to be a judge.

“I considered it such a privilege and honor,” Onnen said of his 20 years in the legislature.

“I miss being able to address issues that individuals come to me about,” Onnen said.

Issues about health care costs are especially important to him. Onnen was a certified public accountant for years. He also managed St. Mary’s and administered the Monticello-Big Lake Hospital.

Onnen was instrumental in making governmental health care funding more economical. The old system used to be “The more you spend, the more you get,” Onnen said.

Consumers also are discouraged from shopping around for less expensive health care options because the co-pay is always the same no matter what is purchased. “The dollar still speaks about the decisions we make,” Onnen said.

The solutions worked out by the legislature were bipartisan then also, he said. Onnen credits the DFL, the opposing party, for taking a lot of flack from special interests during the ‘80s, he said.

The legislature is more partisan now, he said.

In Onnen’s opinion, because the DFL controlled the legislature for decades and Minnesotans are becoming more conservative, “they (DFLers) have seen an erosion of that power,” he said.

“It’s a natural tendency to hang on to that power,” whether Republican or DFL, Onnen said.

Also, the legislature isn’t as adversarial as it appears. The majority of its agenda is bipartisan, he said.

What Onnen doesn’t miss about the legislature, however, are the long-winded debates. Onnen said he turned on the television recently and a debate about Health and Human Services was in progress. Onnen thought to himself that the debate would probably go on until 4 a.m. He was glad he could turn off the TV, he said.

Onnen is focusing his time on golf and enjoying his family. His wife, JoAnn, goes to Maple Grove each day to help care for their granddaughter, Gracie, who has Downs Syndrome, he said.

The Onnens have five children. Jennifer is Gracie’s mother and is an attorney. Daughter Kristin and her husband are Wycliffe Bible translators and will be returning to the Congo in Africa soon. Matthew is a chemical engineer with Honeywell in Minneapolis. Ruth Naomi and her husband are air traffic controllers in Atlanta, Ga., and Lori is in accounting.

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