Elk River legislative rookie says he’s learning quickly

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political editor

Elk River Republican State Rep. Nick Zerwas, District 30A, is a rookie in the Minnesota Legislature this session, but he is learning the ropes very quickly by introducing several bills.

The 32-year-old state legislator looks at his role as another challenge in life and he has had many.

District 30A Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, is flexing his muscles during the first two months of the Minnesota Legislature by introducing several bills. The freshman legislator is a former Elk River Council member. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)
District 30A Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, is flexing his muscles during the first two months of the Minnesota Legislature by introducing several bills. The freshman legislator is a former Elk River Council member. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Many may not know that Zerwas has been battling heart problems all of his life. He has had 10 open heart surgeries, the last one being in 2007. He was even on the heart transplant list at a younger age.

Zerwas is a champion of community service and does not regard his health issues as an impediment to success in politics. “I hit my doors last summer during the campaign when door knocking,” he proudly says. Traveling from his office in the State Office Building to the State Capitol, Zerwas admits that reaching the incline in the tunnel is also challenging.

Being in the minority party has not stopped Zerwas from cranking out legislation in three major areas:

1) Newborn infant screening for congenital heart defects – Zerwas’ legislation calls for a simple and inexpensive test that uses two sensors, one on the baby’s hand and one on the foot. It measures the oxygen level in the blood. The test is proposed to be done at a day old. Zerwas said statistics show that one of 100 babies is born with a congenital heart defect. It is more prevalent than all juvenile cancers combined, he said. Zerwas’ bill has already been heard before the House Health and Human services Committee and before the Civil Law Committee.

2) Exempting cities and counties from state sales tax – Zerwas submitted the legislation with support from the League of Minnesota Cities and the Association of Minnesota Counties. Townships and school districts already are exempt from sales tax. “I look at this as a better way to give local aid back to communities,” Zerwas said. Zerwas said he believes the bill “has legs” and has the support of DFL Tax Chair Ann Lenczewski for possible inclusion in the tax bill.

3) Setting the per pupil education funding rate for Elk River School District 728 the same as it is in the metro area –  This will bring about equity in education funding, Zerwas said. “Our students deserve the same per pupil funding as the student in the 494-694 loop. It makes no sense that a student in Golden Valley should get 50 percent more funding than a student in Elk River.” Zerwas calls it a “fundamental flaw” with the education formula.

Zerwas has hit the ground running and says he is “astounded every day” as to how much there is to learn at the Legislature. “The other thing is the pace; it is really breath taking,” he confessed.

Two months into the session, Zerwas said the DFL party has been setting the agenda but it has only talked about guns, marriage equality and the governor’s budget, which raises taxes and delays paying back schools.

He said “the troubling thing is that two months in, we haven’t talked about jobs, we haven’t talked about the economy and we haven’t talked about Minnesota being an attractive place to open a business.”

Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed business-to-business sales tax has created considerable opposition at the Capitol. Zerwas does not support expanding the sales tax into services. “The idea that we are going to provide property tax relief in up to $500 checks to people, ignores the real issue with the governor’s proposal to broaden sales tax to services,”Zerwas said.

The proposed broadening of sales tax to services “would impact local units of government, our counties and cities,” Zerwas said.

He said his legislation to exempt cities and counties from sales tax will provide direct tax relief and will not rely on a shell game or gimmick where the state raises money in income tax and mails it back as property tax relief that was already collected from the taxpayer. “It doesn’t make any sense,” Zerwas said.

What he calls a baffling proposal of sales tax on services, Zerwas said it has impact on local units of government. In his area, Sherburne County contracts with the city of Zimmerman to provide the city with law enforcement services. Under the governor’s proposal, the city of Zimmerman will pay sales tax to the state for the law enforcement service. “That’s wild, absolutely wild,” Zerwas said.

Thus far this session, gun violence has been the hottest item in Zerwas’ mail in-box. He said he gets about 200 emails a day on the Second Amendment. He said about 98-99 percent of the correspondence says, “Leave us alone, focus on jobs, focus on the economy and get off of guns.”

Looking at Second Amendment restrictions has seemed to be a priority to the DFL-controlled House early this session, Zerwas observed.

“Personally, if we get our job done, we set our budget, we set our priorities, then there’s time to look at other issues,” Zerwas said. “That’s what I would do if I were running the world,” he added.

Zerwas said he has been frustrated that the Legislature has not been talking about the school payback and equity in education funding.

Being 46 miles away from the Capitol allows Zerwas to commute to his new job. That enables him to attend functions in his district including Big Lake and Elk River. He said he and his wife Julie usually have late dinners and are up by 5:30 the next morning.

“This is my job and I’m here trying to learn it,” Zerwas said.

Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]