Though the balance of power in Minnesota Legislature remains divided between a Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, the 2020 elections sent several new faces to the Capitol, including two freshmen lawmakers from Le Sueur and St. Peter. Sworn in for their first session on Jan. 5, District 20A Rep. Brian Pfarr, R-Le Sueur, and District 19A Rep. Susan Akland, R-St. Peter, are learning the ropes and setting their agendas for the new year.
For Akland, who attended a Storm the Capitol rally in her first week, which ran parallel to the Trump supporter break-in at the nation's capitol, lessons have been learned quickly.
Akland, a retired registered nurse from St. Peter, said that her priority entering office was to find ways to reduce the costs of health care. The representive received requested positions on the Health Finance and Policy Committee as well as Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
"One of the big issues I've heard several times is the high cost of our insurance, our premiums and deductibles and the surprises that come with that sometimes," said Akland. "I want to look at the whole of how people are paying out of pocket and how we can make it affordable and how we at the same time we can provide the high quality of care that we experience right now."
Akland did not provide specifics on how she wanted to lower health care costs, saying that she would be listening to her constituents and to experts in the insurance field.
The St. Peter legislator was one of a few House representatives to flip their seats in the last election, unseating incumbent Democratic Rep. Jeff Brand. Akland campaigned on resolving partisan divisions, but she was on the receiving end of criticism last week after her attendance at a rally in St. Paul protesting the certification of the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
The rally on Wednesday, Jan. 6 was billed as a Storm the Capitol rally where hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered at the steps of the Minnesota Capitol to challenge the election. The rally was peaceful and there were no reported attempts to breach the Minnesota Capitol.
Akland was one of several state Republican lawmakers to speak at the event and became further embroiled in controversy after the Star Tribune reported that she told the crowd she was happy to see them unmasked.
Akland said that she regretted the response to her presence of the rally and that her words were taken out of context. The lawmaker said she was in support of mask-wearing and that her remarks were intended to be a comment on how she was happy to see people smiling.
"As a nurse, I've worn masks for many years," said Akland. "They do help stop the spread of certain diseases, no doubt. So in the pandemic, it is absolutely necessary that we be cautious to protect ourselves and others. So when people say I'm 'anti-mask,' I'm not."
The lawmaker also condemned the violence at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, when supporters of the president broke through police barricades and forced legislators to evacuate.
"I want to take steps to heal the divisiveness in our country," said Akland. "Our actions matter and our words matter. I regret that my attendance at this event is viewed as furthering division. That was not my intent and it's not the leader I plan to be for this district."
When asked if she supported the protest against the election certification, Akland commented that it was a federal issue and that now that certification is complete "it's time to move on."
Questions of Akland at the rally may continue, though, as House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, indicated the House would launch an investigation into the actions of the representatives who attended the Minnesota rally.
“We have a situation where we have members of the Minnesota House of Representatives who gathered at a gathering called ‘Storm the Capitol’ while the United States Capitol was under assault,” Hortman said. “So, you can bet we will fully investigate and find out exactly what was said and done and whether any of that was worthy of prosecution.”
Six Republican House members were at that St. Paul rally, according to House Democrats: Reps. Akland, Steve Drazkowski, Mary Franson, Glenn Gruenhagen, Eric Lucero and Jeremy Munson.
Freshman lawmakers aren't the only ones facing a learning curve in the 2021 House session. In reaction to the continued spread of COVID-19 and the resulting death of Sen. Jerry Relph last month, the House has limited in-person contact in the chambers, utilizing virtual meetings and shifting to a fingerprint activated voting system that allowing representatives to vote from their own offices.
"Training as a new legislator was different because everything is online via Zoom so it's a new experience obviously," said Pfarr. "I'm learning everyday the process but its new for the seniors who have been here for a while because of the way we're conducting business."
The Le Sueur native is entering office off the back of a career as the president of Le Sueur First Farmers and Merchants Bank and a National Guard Colonel and succeeding retired Rep. Bob Vogel (R-Elko New Market). Pfarr said that he wants to use his experience in banking to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, who was lauded by colleagues as a "master of numbers."
"My predecessor Bob Vogel was noted for being the numbers guy and digging into the true cost of the bill and making sure that the numbers worked out and we weren't overspending," said Pfarr. "With my experience in finance I think I can be that person that helps there as well."
The new legislator has been assigned to the Housing, Commerce and Judiciary Committees and said that he is developing his priorities by listening to his constituents. Pfarr signaled that his top priority will be the reducing the state's projected long-term deficit.
The state of Minnesota is currently forecasted to have a $641 million surplus in June, but a $1.27 billion deficit for the next two-year budget according to the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget. Pfarr said he aims to cut the projected deficit without raising taxes.
"Every one of my constituents has to live within their means and I can't pain them with the fact that the government has to do the same," said Pfarr. "I think it's very doable from what I've seen and not further burden the taxpayer and provide the services we're providing."
The new legislative session has been a transitional period not just for new lawmakers but some experienced ones as well
"Training as a new legislator was different, because everything is online, via Zoom, so it's a new experience obviously," Pfarr said. "I'm learning every day the process, but its new for the seniors who have been here for a while, because of the way we're conducting business."
The legislator said that he didn't have any specifics on what he would cut at this point.
"I'm certainly a fan of looking at each individual area on its merits and what it provides for the citizens of Minnesota," said Pfarr.