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A House Divided
By Brent Wolfe
August 17, 1999
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Governor Jesse Ventura toured the state Tuesday to promote a plan to cut the size of the legislature from two houses to one. Ventura says a one-house, or unicameral, system will make government more accessible to citizens by simplifying the legislative process. Opponents say the state needs two houses to maintain a system of checks and balances. Minnesota Public Radio's Brent Wolfe reports.

THE GOVERNOR'S TOUR officially begins his campaign to get lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2000 ballot so voters could decide to reduce the size of the legislature. Ventura says the legislative process is unnecessarily complicated by having to pass a bill through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and that major decisions are often made privately by conference committees. He says the budget process is a perfect example of how difficult it can be for citizens to follow legislation through a two house system.

Ventura: The major, most important bills lay until the very ending part of the session and then it's a madhouse over there. The last one week of the session, it's all hours of the night and how can the public even follow what's going on when legislators can't even follow what's going on because everything is crammed into the last week of the session in an effort to get it done? And in unicameral we will be able to structure it to where the budget will have to be put out in a reasonable amount of time and the spending bills in a reasonable amount of time before the session ends.

Ventura says he'd want the new, single house to be nonpartisan so lawmakers wouldn't get wrapped up in party bickering rather than dealing with issues. But opponents of a unicameral legislature say the current House and Senate balance each other by requiring agreement between them before a bill can become law. Senate DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe says having one house would not eliminate some of the frustrations of the bicameral system.

Moe: I don't believe that you will ever take the politics out of a political process. And to think that you can do that is somewhat silly. The fact of the matter is that the good give-and-take of different philosophies, there's nothing wrong with that. There is no single philosophy in this state, and through that process we come up with laws that basically find the common denominator among the most people, and I think those are the kind of laws that endure.

Majorities in both the Senate and House would have to vote to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot and then a simple majority of the voters would need to approve it. It's not a partisan issue, and Republicans and Democrats have lined up on both sides. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum supports a unicameral legislature, but Republican House Ways and Means Committee Chair Dave Bishop opposes it. Bishop says the two-house system is working the way it was designed and a unicameral system would only create more problems.

Bishop: It's an oversimplification. It reminds me of H. L. Menken, the wise man who wrote with the Baltimore Sun years ago - for every complex problem there is a simple solution and it's wrong. And I've seen enough reason for this idea to be killed at the very outset.

But Governor Ventura says the decision shouldn't be left to politicians who'd have to vote themselves out of a job.

Ventura: Let the people decide if they want their constitution amended. If the people vote for bicameral, fine. My point is very simple. This is government, democracy in progress. This should be a decision made by the people, not made by legislators.

Ventura says getting the proposal on the ballot is one of his top priorities for the next legislative session, and he plans to court public support for it at the state fair next week. Senate Majority Leader Moe expects a healthy debate on the issue but he won't predict whether it will make it to the ballot. Nebraska is the only other state with a one-house legislature.