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New lawmakers excited to begin

Newly elected Senator Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake poses for pictures with family and friends on opening day of the Minnesota Legislature Tuesday, January 8, 2013. (Photo by Don Davis, Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL -- The scene was much like the first day of school or a family reunion as 62 new lawmakers experienced their first legislative session day Tuesday at the Minnesota Capitol alongside returning senators and representatives.

Senators lined up outside a committee meeting room-turned-photo-studio to get photos taken of their mock swearing in.

Families of new and returning lawmakers toured the state Capitol, seeing an ornate chandelier hanging a few feet off the floor to give visitors a better look than in its usual place at the top of the interior dome.

Friends and family sat in legislative chairs, snapped pictures and shared food during a day-long celebration. Legislators hugged old friends and met new fellow lawmakers.

"It feels great. I've got the whole family here," newly elected Senator Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said. "We're ready to do the hard lifting now, but it's nice to celebrate with the family first."

The sons of newly elected Representative Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, waited for her to wrap up a pre-session meeting. Jeff, 24, and John, 21, tried out her chair, as did her husband, Doug, and saw the view she has of the speaker of the House.

"Pretty sweet, pretty cool, exciting," is how Jeff Sawatzky said he felt.

The young men, who last were in the Capitol during 6th-grade tours, said their mother always is looking for ways to help others, and being a legislator is a good way to do that.

After being sworn in, Representative Sawatzky did not want to talk about the controversy of the day - whether agriculture was given a less important position than usual. Instead, she said, she was elected to bring sides together.

"That is what it is all about," she said. "I plan on working with legislators no matter which side of the aisle they are on. In my opinion, that's the best way to responsibly solve our state budget deficit and put Minnesota back on the path to economic prosperity.

After taking the oath of office, senators cheered, clapped and waved to family and friends in the gallery. And then it was time to dive in.

"People ask me if I'm ready," said a new senator, Bill Weber, R-Luverne. "Until you jump in the middle and start paddling, you don't know what it's going to be like."

Some lawmakers are not new to St. Paul, but are now in a different chamber. Eken made the transition to the Senate after serving in the state House, a shift a number of former representatives have made in what Eken called a "House invasion of the Senate."

Newly elected lawmakers have spent the months following the November 6 election meeting with local groups and residents and getting up to speed on the issues and procedures at the Capitol.

"We're getting past the campaign themes and seeing what the real issues are," Weber said.

Lawmakers have listed issues such as taxes, job creation and economic development, agriculture and education as other key topics. But the budget will come first.

"There are a lot of high expectations that need to be tempered with the fact that we are facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit," Eken said. "It's a tall order."