By Martin Kaste
April 29, 1999
Unicameralism is back in vogue in Minnesota politics. For years, a small
but vocal group of state politicians has proposed converting to a one-house
legislature, as opposed to the traditional House and Senate. The idea has made
little headway, but that may change now that Governor Ventura is the
SUPPORTERS OF A ONE-HOUSE LEGISLATURE
say it's more efficient and accountable to voters; opponents say it skews the balance of
power. Both sides point to Nebraska when they make their arguments. It's the
only state in the union with a one-chamber legislature.
Nebraskans are proud of their unicameral legislature. Their Capitol, an
art-deco tower rising 15 stories from the prairie, is a monument to their
decision in 1934 to be different from other states.
Tour guide Libby Blase stands in front of the closed doors of the old Senate
chamber and explains why it's no longer used for law-making. "When this building was built, when it was finished in 1932, we still had
the two-house system, the bicameral," she says. "The east was our Senate, the west was our
House of Representatives. In a state-wide election in 1934, George Norris and
others say, 'there's a better way to do government. We could save money, it
would be more efficient, it would be more efficient.'"
The Nebraska Legislature consists of 49 senators, who meet every winter and
spring in the old House chamber. The Speaker is Doug Kristensen, a Republican
lawyer and, like everyone in this building, a fan of unicameralism. The chief
advantage, he says, is that Nebraska voters know whom to hold accountable.
Speaker Kristensen says he's glad he doesn't have to worry about making deals in
When talking about the Nebraska system, it's hard to separate unicameralism from
the other distinction of the legislature in Lincoln: it's nominally
non-partisan. That means candidates are not identified as Democrats or
Republicans on the ballot, and once they get to the legislature, they're not
allowed to form party caucuses. Without party caucuses, there are no caucus
leaders - no majority leaders or minority leaders - and individual senators
have a lot more leeway to vote as they see fit.
The Nebraska State House (Photo credit: Martin Kaste )
Some lobbyists say the non-partisan independence of the Nebraska legislators
sometimes makes their jobs harder, since they have to do more than just convince
the majority leader to see things their way. One lobbyist described the Nebraska
legislature as being made up of "49 generals." But some observers say lobbyists
have it easier in the Nebraska system. Des Moines Register Reporter Tom Fogarty
covered the legislatures in both Nebraska and Iowa, and he prefers the
two-chamber, partisan system. Fogarty says the lack of party structures in
Nebraska makes the senators more vulnerable to pressure from lobbyists.
I think that, when a legislator is approached, that legislator
can use party concerns to fend off requests from a legislators," says Fogarty. "I mean, from a
lobbyist, even a lobbyist who may have been a big contributor at election time. I think the accountability comes with the parties."
In Minnesota, Governor Ventura often rails against legislative overproductivity, and he
might be surprised and dismayed at the number of bills passed by a unicameral
Minnesota Legislature. Of course, the governor could veto those bills, but vetoes are
less final in the unicameral system.
The result is what many political scientists consider a weakened executive
branch, possibly another unwelcome surprise for Governor Ventura, should
Minnesota follow Nebraska's lead.
The Nebraska Legislature's chamber (Photo courtesy Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)
The change would require a
constitutional amendment, which means both the House and Senate would have to
vote to put the question on general election ballot. Legislators are generally
skeptical - if not downright hostile - to the idea.
Nebraska politicians say no other state has adopted unicameralism because
legislators aren't likely to vote themselves out of a job. But at the moment,
unicameralism does have some friends in high places in the Minnesota
Legislature, most notably House Speaker Steve Sviggum. "One, it would control some costs, $20 to $25 million a year, and two, more importantly, the direct accountability," says Sviggum
Discussion of unicameralism is not likely to begin in earnest until the current
legislative session ends this spring.