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Turkeys No Longer Come First With This State Representative

by Jeff Olsen

A week ago Wednesday, Rep. John Burkel (R-1A) was just days away from the kickoff of the 2024 Minnesota State Legislative session.

The Republican, in his fourth year, succeeded fellow Republican Rep. Dan Fabian in 2021.

John is not an elderly gentleman, having graduated from Greenbush High School in 1985.

"I graduated with all those wrestlers," he said, mentioning Efrem Novacek, one of the legends in that neck of the woods as both a wrestler and a long-time coach.

Play basketball or wrestle?

"You know what? I was too small to play football or basketball. I should have wrestled. Doug Dahl was all over me to wrestle back in the day."

He lives in rural Badger, is in the second year of his second two-year term, and was asked about his legislative aides.

"In the House, you get one aide that you share with another representative. So I have a half of a legislative assistant."

Dylan Mika is his new assistant. This past Monday morning Rep. Burkel was at work in St. Paul.

"Usually, committee hearings are four days a week, and Fridays aren't typically committee days. It's usually Monday through Thursday. If they need to do committee hearings like if we're hitting deadlines, you might have committee hearings on a Saturday or even on Sunday if need be."

Burkel will serve on four committees this session.

"I'm on Agriculture, Environment, Property Tax, and they just threw me on Children and Families. Kurt Daudt's resignation kind of changed things up, and they needed people to fill some gaps on committees."

Burkel estimates he will serve on the Children and Families Committee for a couple of months.

Will it be additional homework?

"It will be, but it'll be good. It will add a whole other dimension like seven committee hearings a week."

He remarked that once Gov. Walz calls a special election for Daudt's vacant seat, his load will lighten up somewhat.

Every committee requires a different focus.

"Agriculture is easy for me because it's what I grew up with. It's generational."

He added that it's quite a learning process whenever he serves on new committees.

"My first term I was on Human Services. So, it's all your social services that the counties handle with all those big issues - nursing homes, you name it. That was eye-opening for me to be exposed to and understand the big picture on human services."

He's expecting the same experiences serving on the Children and Families Committee.

"Child care is a big issue up in our district, and it's the same with any of the issues with our children."

As the father of five kids, he added that he has enough experience to serve on the committee.

"But Ag is where my heart is. For me, it's part of how I've made my living, too. The issues are more relevant to what I know."

He added that serving on the Environment Committee, especially in his district - whether it's hunting or fishing or what's happening with trails and DNR issues - has his attention.

"Dan Fabian chaired that committee. I just know that the environment committee is really important to be on for District 1A."

He explained the obvious that the majority party always stacks the committees in their favor.

Still, he noted, the Speaker of the House of the majority party does respect a request to be on those committees that a state representative is interested in serving on.

"Then, they will try to get you on a committee that you really have an interest in because they want that."

On the Ag Committee, there are five Republicans and eight Democrats.

Have friends on both sides of the aisle?

"In the Ag Committee in particular, there are a couple that stand out. It's been fun to get to know Ethan Cha, (D-Woodbury). He's got an experience that's fun to talk to him about."

In his Wikipedia biography, Ethan Cha was born in a Thai refugee camp, immigrated to the United States as a child, and grew up in St. Paul. He later lived in California for many years.

"He had cattle out in California, and he's got some actual ag dirt under his fingernails type of experience. We actually were co-authors on the Grain Indemnity Bill that passed in 2023."

John compared his first year as a representative to the present.

"What stands out back in 2020, it was the Covid year and there were no parades and very little interaction with folks during my first run."

That has all changed.

"It's been interesting going to different towns and realizing that every town has their own little culture internally. You start visiting with people, and there are a lot of things that are the same but they have their own issues. It's informative to get a sense of what people are struggling with locally and trying to help them with their problems."

One of the most enjoyable parts of the job, he noted, is helping people who are having issues with state agencies, whether it's a licensing issue for a restaurant or a daycare issue.

"It's the local stuff that is rewarding."

He added that he is presently looking at the local cost portion of $400,000 for the City of Roseau's share of Highway 11 improvements by MnDOT through Roseau to Warroad. He expects that the cost will be higher due to inflation.

"I am going to look at some legislation to fix that. There are issues with Americans for Disabilities Act requirements. They have to move a stoplight and fix sewer lines. Who pays for that? So, it's working through those local issues and trying to keep everybody's taxes reasonable. There's a lot to balance there."

As a state legislator, he emphasizes that it's the local issues that are the most rewarding.

"A lot of these big issues take up all the oxygen. But really, if you focus on the local stuff, it really keeps you grounded. So, that's been the fun part of the job."

Just recently, Rep. Burkel announced that he will be running for his third term.

"That's the other part of the job that, to be honest, if there's a frustrating part, it seems like you're always running for office. It's a necessary distraction, but it does take away from doing the job."

On a lighter side, there are benefits that go with the position like encouraging emails.

And maybe birthday cards, too. He turns 57 on April 6, which is a Saturday and he should home with his family.

He tries to get home every weekend.

"My daughter Emily is still in school in Badger. She's a sophomore. That's one of the hard parts, being gone all week."

He heads home on Friday and returns to St. Paul on Sunday.

"If I have to stay down there on weekends, that's the way it is."

Any other drawbacks?

"The toughest part right now is just the environment we're in. It's so partisan. I don't know if anybody is listening to anybody anymore when you're down there. To be honest, I think the last couple of years have been better. Our committees are meeting in person and that helps a lot. For instance, I mentioned Rep. Cha. I work with him and it's just a lot easier to personalize things and get to know people."

He recalled three years ago when committee hearings were on zoom.

"You weren't really talking to people, face-to-face. It's gotten better that way. Just the partisanship is so strong and that has been difficult to navigate. There's just a lot of yelling and not a lot of listening."

When the legislature is not in session, he has his District 1A agenda.

"It's mainly local meetings at home. It's hitting the county board meetings and watershed board meetings. It's just being available to folks up here during the interim."

Had a speeding ticket yet?

"Almost. I got a warning on that one. I haven't had a speeding ticket for quite a while. I have to think about that. I think it was before I got elected."

Getting a speeding ticket definitely isn't on his bucket list for 2024.


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