By Stephen Wiblemo
Two legislative sessions, 24 months, 730 days however you measure it, the toughest part of the inaugural term for Ron Shimanski as the McLeod District (18A) representative came to a close this past week as the 2008 Minnesota state legislative session wrapped up its business for the year.
Although it was his first term as a state representative, Shimanski felt that he and his colleagues in the capitol were able to accomplish quite a bit, especially during the 2008 session.
Here is a brief legislative wrapup from the Republican from Silver Lake, including some highlights of his time as the District 18A representative.
Balancing the budget
Perhaps the greatest achievement during the 2008 session, and the greatest source of frustration, according to Shimanski, was getting the state budget balanced.
“It feels much better now that we’re done. It was kind of a torturous event, getting to the end of session. The frustration and anxiety really came from trying to figure out how we were going to balance the budget by the deadline,” Shimanski said.
“With the negotiations going on between the governor’s office and leadership of both houses and both parties, they came to a very commendable agreement. It wasn’t perfect in anyone’s eyes, but it was something we can all live with.”
The legislature was confronted with the daunting task of making up for a projected $935 million shortfall in the budget by the end of June 2009.
While the good news was that they were able to balance the budget without creating or raising taxes, the bad news was that they had to dip into the state’s reserve fund of about $700 million for approximately $500 million.
“It was our duty to step up and figure out how we were going to balance the budget for the next 12 months,” he said. “We were able to hold the line on taxes. We are going to balance the budget by using some of our reserve money . . . The rest of the balancing comes from about $350 million in spending cuts.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part about the process of passing legislation, especially large things such as the budget, was all of the waiting, according to Shimanski.
Generally, the House and Senate coordinate their schedules so that they meet on the same days and same hours as each other. Bills have to be passed from one body to the other, and then to the governor, which means there can be a lot of waiting in one body of the legislature while things are being debated or negotiated in another body.
“In the last week or two there was a lot of hurry up and wait. It was Friday or Saturday, we were in session from 10 a.m. to way past midnight. But, our actual floor activity time where we were actually debating or passing legislation was actually just about two or three hours.”
A day in the life
Life as a small-scale farmer in Silver Lake, and a state representative in St. Paul, has many differences and similarities.
Although Shimanski admits he would almost always rather be farming, he did say there were many things about being a representative that he enjoyed.
His days started at about 7:30 a.m. in the capitol and usually went until about 10 p.m.
At the beginning of a session, most of the work is done in individual committees.
Shimanski belongs to four committees: agriculture, rural economies and veterans affairs; agriculture, rural economies and veterans affairs finance division; labor and consumer protection division; telecommunications regulation and infrastructure division.
“The committee process is what gets it all going,” Shimanski said. “We would have committee meetings twice a week for each committee and we would hear from department heads, special interest groups, and average citizens who had a concern.”
One of the biggest issues that Shimanski faced in his committees was the spread of bovine tuberculosis that was going on in the northwestern part of Minnesota.
“Because it has a tremendous financial impact on the entire state, we wanted to eradicate that as fast as possible,” he said. “So, we authorized the DNR to go up there and eliminate most of the deer herd in that range, and there was a buyout for some cattle herds in that area too, within about a 10-mile radius of identified TB sites.”
Aside from working with the committees, Shimanski and other representatives also had to hold floor sessions about twice a week and handle the constant flow of messages from concerned citizens.
“One of the things that we get a superabundance of is information. We get e-mails from constituents and from special interest groups. Everybody has access to our e-mail address so we are inundated with messages. Also phone calls and mail,” Shimanski said. “It can be quite time consuming to try and keep up with the inflow of information, along with the debate and discussion on committees.”
A freshman no more
Things can get off to a slow start at the beginning of a session when there are a lot of new faces, which was the case in 2007 during Shimanski’s first year on the job.
With 35 new members, including himself, the first month or so was all about showing the new people around and getting them acquainted with things.
In his second session, things were a little different for Shimanski and his fellow sophomores.
“We didn’t really have too much information backgrounding going on this year, and the committees had met in the interim and were doing their work ahead of the opening of the 2008 session. So, we kind of hit the ground running,” Shimanski said.
“I knew all the players going into that second year and understood who the committee chairs were.”
Another thing that became quite obvious, even later in his first year, was the party-line voting that was going on.
“We hear about the partisanship, and it can be partisan, but it isn’t unfriendly partisanship,” he said. “You have your issues that you want to defend or protect and so you speak up for it. It isn’t like we are on opposite sides of the world. Everyone just has an opinion and is willing to share it.”
Although it may be friendly, it can also be frustrating.
For example, the transportation bill that gave Minnesota a gas tax was vetoed in 2007, but passed this year despite another veto from the governor because Democrats had enough votes for an override.
Another area where partisan voting was apparent was in the issue of equity and educational funding.
One of the issues Shimanski campaigned and advocated for in legislation was equitable funding for schools.
“We spend over 42 percent of our state budget on k-12 education and yet there is a pretty wide disparity between per-pupil funding for the metro area and outstate schools,” he said. “When we talked about increasing education funding last year k-12 got $800 million, and we also added $318 million for special education.”
Although there was a billion dollars of new money for education last year, because of the way it is apportioned on the existing formula as a percentage increase, rather than a set amount, schools that get more money per pupil, such as inner-city schools, got more of the new money, which caused an even greater divide between metro and outstate schools.
“Inner city schools getting about $13,000 per student got a bump of about $750 per student, whereas out in McLeod, our schools get about $8,000 per student and only got a raise of about $400 per student,” Shimanski said.
Shimanski and others set out to try and create a new formula that would not widen the gap between schools by giving a percentage increase. Although it didn’t pass last year, this year they were able to pass a modest increase of $51 per student, for any student, across the state.
“We got rid of doing it on a percentage basis,” he said.
Up next for Shimanski
With the second session at a close and his first term as a state representative under his belt, Shimanski says he, “feels like one of those teenagers just finishing up with high school we’re free at last.”
He plans on taking a little time off now to tend to his apple orchard in Silver Lake, spend some time with his kids and grandchildren, and hopefully get in a little fishing.
The next few months aren’t all fun and games, though, and he will also be working on his campaign as he plans on running for reelection again this fall.
Despite all of the stress and frustration that comes with the job of representing an entire district, Shimanski apparently finds quite a bit to enjoy and is anxious to continue his role at the state capitol.
“The most enjoyable part is just the tremendous people that we meet. Whether they are legislators, people from different agencies or just constituents coming in. It is just phenomenal what talent we have in this state and the people that are willing to serve and advocate for their special interests.”