Burning Down the House

Jesse lit the fire. Now a group of legislators prepare to feed the unicameral blaze.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

A few days before the November issue of Playboy is delivered to a nation of easily aroused pundits, the magazine's featured interview subject--rocking back and forth behind his desk at the Minnesota state capitol, munching on a sensible sack lunch--draws yet another line in the sand. "I want a unicameral Legislature to be my legacy only in the fact that I want the people to be able to choose," Gov. Jesse Ventura explains. With a touch of the cool menace that made him popular in the ring, he adds: "If I don't get it on the ballot for 2000, rest assured there will be repercussions next November. I will be very active against any elected official who won't give the people a choice."

Asked to discuss the pros and cons of replacing Minnesota's House of Representatives and Senate with a single legislative body--a model that so far has been tried in only one state, Nebraska--Ventura warns against "putting the cart before the horse." "Legislators want to argue about the details," he says. "Those arguments should come after we agree to allow the people to choose."

For those state legislators who've spent the last three years working behind the scenes to convince colleagues that one house would be more efficient and less beholden to monied interests than two, the governor's rhetoric is a mixed bag. Republican senator Dave Kleis (St. Cloud) and DFL representative Alice Hausman (St. Paul) describe themselves as longtime advocates of a unicameral system. They agree that Ventura's enthusiastic support, announced early in his gubernatorial run and reiterated this summer, has accelerated their efforts. Capitol insiders say a bill to place a unicameralism referendum on the 2000 ballot is almost certain to be introduced next session by two of the Legislature's most powerful legislators, Senate president Allen Spear and House Speaker Steve Sviggum. The bill will face rough sailing in the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by staunch anti-unicameralist Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe (DFL-Erskine). Then, it if comes to a floor vote, who knows?

"Without a doubt the governor's support will be instrumental," Kleis says. "Right now I believe a majority of Minnesotans want this issue on the ballot. I couldn't have said that a year ago. I give it a 60 percent chance of getting on the ballot if it gets through committee." But Kleis, Hausman, and other advocates of unicameralism are concerned about the governor's strategy. "The argument is, 'Let's put it on the ballot and let the people decide,'" says Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville). "That's a twisted constitutional argument.

"I basically agree with the governor that most of the specifics can be worked out later, but we have to come up with a rough outline. Otherwise the public could vote yes on a broad referendum next year and then legislators would still have to make changes to the Constitution. We'd actually have to have another referendum."

Besides, adds Kleis, without the Legislature's support, nothing will happen, period. "The governor brings a lot of attention to the issue and brings public pressure that's needed to get it on the ballot," he explains. "But we have to make sure we convince our colleagues that it's a good idea. We have to bring the debate to the Legislature."

To that end, Kleis and Hausman last Wednesday called a meeting encouraging like-minded lawmakers to agree on a single unicameralism proposal before the 2000 session begins. Currently, says Kleis, six separate bills are floating around the capitol, with the differences centering on three issues: What the new body should be called, how big it should be, and how long its members should serve.

Advocates agree that deciding how many legislators there would be in one house is central to any unicameral proposal--especially since critics are quick to argue that downsizing government will strip citizens of representation. Marty favors replacing the 201 members of the House and Senate with 99; others, like Hausman and Kleis, would prefer 135 elected officials--just one more than the current House of Representatives--so each existing legislative district will still have a voice. "We need to make this appealing to legislators in Greater Minnesota," Kleis observes. "We need to make sure their districts don't become too large geographically."

Marty says he and others will not kill a deal if the number is 135, but he hopes that the Legislature will make that a maximum, allowing future governments to shrink, not grow. He says other technical disputes--whether lawmakers should all be elected at the same time or serve staggered terms, and whether the new body should be called the House of Representatives or something else--will likewise be resolved. "I don't think anything's going to get in the way of an eventual agreement," Marty guesses. "We know that our main job is convincing our colleagues who are on the fence, so we'll eventually line up on the details."

Once a bill is written, Kleis believes it has a good chance in the House of Representatives since that body's speaker, minority leader, and majority leader all share Ventura's vision of a smaller, simpler government. At that point he hopes there will be enough momentum to overcome a Senate heavily influenced by Majority Leader Moe, a man who suffered a humiliating defeat at Ventura's hands as Hubert Humphrey III's gubernatorial running mate last year.

"I can understand what the governor's up to," Moe snips, confirming that he plans to put the brakes on the one-house juggernaut. "He doesn't like dealing with the Legislature. He wants more power."

Actually, argues House DFLer Alice Hausman, it's veteran power brokers like Moe who fear losing their turf. "When there is one body deliberating, you focus more on the idea you're debating," she says. "When you have two houses involved, you're dealmaking. Every piece of legislation is decided in conference committee, so the people who appoint the conferees determine the outcome of every bill."

Either way, Moe says he's confident Minnesotans will be suspicious of overhauling the state's system of governance--especially in the wake of Ventura's post-Playboy slide in popularity. "Do you want to put more power in the hands of a person who was elected with only 37 percent of the vote?" he asks rhetorically. "I think that an overwhelming number of people would say no."

Steven Schier, chair of the political science department at Carleton College, believes the idea of a one-house Legislature deserves "active and serious consideration," but he agrees that Ventura is in no position to start counting votes. "It's going to takes an active and consistent campaign," he contends. "And that will require the governor to think this through, which means spending less time at Harvard and on the David Letterman show and more time in places like Mankato or Crookston talking one-on-one about the virtues of a one-house Legislature."

And what of Jesse's promise to make life tough for guys like Moe? Schier chuckles. "If Jesse continues to behave the way he has, next fall every legislator will invite him into their districts to campaign against them."

Correction published 10/20/1999:
Owing to a reporting error, the issue of Playboyin which the Jesse Ventura interview appeared was misidentified. The Ventura piece was published in the November issue. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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