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Ozment not done at capitol yet

Dennis Ozment ended his last session as a Minnesota legislator early Monday morning, but that doesn't mean he's done at the capitol. Listening to him talk, he might be busier than ever.

Now that he no longer has to worry about passing laws and running for reelection, Ozment, who served 12 terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, wants to help other legislators do their job better. Ozment said he hopes to recruit other former legislators to build what he described as "a better atmosphere" at the capitol.

Ozment believes one key to that is helping legislators get to know each other better. Elected officials come from such diverse backgrounds, he said, it is hard for them to get familiar with their colleagues. When it comes time for debate on an important issue, then, they see an opposing viewpoint rather than another human being.

"It's just amazing to me in recent years as to how members will talk about each other," Ozment said. "It's bad enough on the floor of the house and in the media, but it's really bad when you get into private conversation. They use derogatory terms toward other people that you have to deal with. We're all on the same team."

Ozment, who was the most senior Republican in the House this session, said things used to be better. He believes part of the problem is a reduction in the opportunities legislators have to socialize outside of the capitol. He said restrictions on legislators attending special events associated with interest groups mean many lawmakers simply go home when they're done at the end of the day rather than socializing.

First-term legislators tend to know their other newcomers fairly well because they all go through orientation together, but that socialization doesn't always extend to the legislature as a whole.

"The senior members, you don't get to know them and yet they're the ones that are making the decisions," Ozment said.

Ozment doesn't have all the answers yet but he believes, now that he's looking at things from the outside, he can do something to help. He hopes to bring together other former legislators to talk about the problem and has suggested setting up a non-profit organization that could organize events for legislators.

Ozment doesn't expect legislators to suddenly all become best friends, but he wants to see a more civil of conversation when it comes time to debate the issues.

"We've always had a lot of rhetoric that is very hard on the issues," Ozment said. "I'm not trying to soften that up."

Ozment would also like to see better pay for legislators, many of whom discover after election they can't afford to take so much time away from their full-time jobs. He believes that hurts the diversity of the legislature because the people who serve end up being the people who can afford it.

"Where are the carpenters? Where are the electricians? Where are the people that are just your average working class person," said Ozment, a retired firefighter. "They can't get into the legislature because they just can't afford it."

Whatever he ends up doing, it seems clear Ozment is far from done with the Minnesota legislature.

"I don't know if I'm going to be able to stay away from up there," he said. "It gets in your blood."