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Session 2001: The Budget
By Laura McCallum
December 27, 2000
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When lawmakers gather at the Capitol for the 2001 session, their main purpose is to pass a two-year state budget. Gov. Jesse Ventura will reveal his budget in late January, a budget he's spent months preparing. Political observers say the governor's second budget will define his administration by showing his top priorities.

TWO YEARS AGO, a newly-elected Jesse Ventura - a novice to state government - had just two months to come up with a two-year budget recommendation for the Legislature. Finance commissioner Pam Wheelock helped prepare that first budget as a member of Ventura's transition team.

"Here's someone that walks in the door the day after the election and doesn't even have somebody to answer his phone in the transition office, and he's now responsible for making close to $40 billion worth of recommendations," Wheelock recalls.

Ventura ended up using the framework of his predecessor Arne Carlson's budget, and making minor revisions. But this time, the independent governor who campaigned on changing the system has a chance to propose a reform-minded budget and put his imprint on state government.

Wheelock says the governor will present a plan to overhaul the property-tax system, which has been in development for a year and a half. Ventura has said his budget will also include across-the-board income tax cuts, further reductions in car tab fees, and a cut in the sales-tax rate from 6.5 to 6 percent.

Ventura declined requests for a pre-session interview, but he said on MPR's Midmorning in December that he can fund his list of tax cuts by holding state spending to the rate of inflation. (Listen to the interview.)

Ventura is leery of putting much faith into the latest revenue projections of a $3 billion surplus by the year 2003 - a figure many economists consider too optimistic.

"I went into my first year's budget cautious. We had big projections then, I took criticism from the Republicans, saying I was overly cautious, but I'm going to err on the side of caution," Ventura said.

Ventura has said if this budget is his last as governor, he wants to be remembered for fiscal responsibility. Commissioner Wheelock says Ventura wants to leave the state in better shape economically than when he took office.

"He is very concerned about being a watchdog on behalf of Minnesota citizens about the level of taxation and spending," she said. "Are we getting our money's worth, and let's only collect what we need, and if we collect more than what we need, let's make sure we give it back."

That's a message Republicans have enthusiastically endorsed, and Democrats have reacted to warily. DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe of Erskine says it may be unrealistic for the governor to limit spending increases to two-percent a year.

"If he's willing to say, 'Let's keep the health insurance premiums at the rate of inflation,' then it works. If you can keep energy cost increases to the rate of inflation, then it works," said Moe.

"I think we've kinda pretty well had our fill of the governor telling us, 'You can't trust those Democrats and Republicans worth a dime,' and beating us upside the head about every week for about two years now."

- Sen. Dick Day (R-Owatonna)
Otherwise, Moe says the governor's budget won't address unmet needs in education, health care and other areas lawmakers heard about on the campaign trail this year.

But Republicans laud the governor's talk of a lean state budget. House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan says if Ventura's budget cuts income taxes across the board and reigns in state spending, the governor and House Republicans will be on the same page.

"We may have an ally this session that we didn't have in previous sessions," said Pawlenty. "The bad news is a lot of times he makes bold public pronouncements, but he doesn't roll up the sleeves and work to get those done; he just launches these press initiatives. If he's actually willing to work his agenda, then I'd be even more excited about it."

Pawlenty's comments indicate the level of skepticism with which many lawmakers regard Ventura. Republican Senate Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna predicts anything but smooth sailing for the governor's budget, because many lawmakers are more willing to wrangle with Ventura.

"I think we've kinda pretty well had our fill of the governor telling us, 'You can't trust those Democrats and Republicans worth a dime,' and beating us upside the head about every week for about two years now. I think most of us have finally had it with that."

Ventura's controversial new job as an XFL analyst may have diminished his political capital. Some lawmakers think if the governor leaves the state for 10 weekends in the middle of the session, he won't be engaged enough to effectively push his budget priorities. Without any party colleagues in the Legislature, Ventura has to work harder than previous governors to advance his agenda.

Laura McCallum is the Capitol bureau chief for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach her via e-mail at