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Lawmakers Stand on Shifting Political Ground
By Laura McCallum
December 29, 2000
Part of MPR's online coverage of Session 2001
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The major players are the same for the 2001 legislative session: a Republican-controlled House, a Senate dominated by Democrats, and an independent governor who answers to neither party. But as Minnesota's experiment with tri-partisan government enters its third year, the political dynamics are shifting.

The three main players at the Capitol are the same as last session: Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum. But there have been a few changes. In the Senate, the new Asst. Majority Leader is John Hottinger of Mankato, replacing the retiring Ember Reichgott Junge of New Hope, who was the highest-ranking woman in the Senate. The new Senate president is Don Samuelson of Brainerd, replacing Allan Spear of Minneapolis, who retired after nearly three decades in the Senate. Unlike Spear, Samuelson is opposed to legalized abortion, causing some concern among abortion rights activists that Samuelson will allow anti-abortion amendments to be tacked on to bills on the floor. Democrats control the Senate by a solid 39-27 seats, with one independent (although the lone independent, Bob Lessard, says he may join the Republican caucus after the DFL took him off two key Senate panels).h

In the House, Republicans have a slim majority, with 69 members, compared to the DFL's 65 members. It takes 68 votes to pass a bill. Sviggum must try to control a diverse caucus that includes a faction of 15-20 fiscal conservatives led by Phil Krinkie of Shoreview. Krinkie nominated Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan to replace Sviggum as Speaker at a closed caucus meeting last month. Pawlenty declined, and Sviggum was re-elected, but Sviggum admits not everyone is happy in his caucus.
DURING THE FIRST TWO YEARS of Gov. Ventura's term, it often seemed that he and Senate Democrats were on the same page. The governor and DFL leaders agreed on a sales tax rebate, funding for light-rail transit, and setting aside money from the state's tobacco settlement in an endowment - all ideas opposed by House Republicans. But this year, Ventura says he'll recommend a lean state budget that holds spending to the rate of inflation and cuts income taxes, which Republicans have applauded. House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan says the political alignment should be different this session, if the governor and the House share the same budget priorities.

"It's this shifting game of two-on-one, and if you can get one of the other players on your side and forge a two-on-one alliance against the other leg of the stool, you have a very good chance of winning, and so if he's willing to be our two-on-one ally on these fiscal issues, we like that position, particularly as compared to the last two years," Pawlenty said.

DFL Senate Assistant Majority Leader John Hottinger of Mankato says candidates heard on the campaign trail this year about unmet needs in education, health care and transportation - priorities which may not be funded in a bare-bones state budget. Democrats have also floated the idea of not returning to taxpayers nearly $1 billion available for a potential tax rebate - an idea already dismissed by Republicans and the governor.

But while House Republicans are cautiously celebrating the prospect of not being the odd faction out, at least on fiscal matters, all is not completely rosy in the House GOP caucus. House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon must try to hold together a slim two-vote majority, and he acknowledges that not everyone is happy with his performance last session.

"I'm sure there were some disappointments of some people that would like my leadership style to be different, or the results to have been different in the past year, but also I think the majority of the caucus is very well satisfied with the balance we have tried to strike in governing Minnesota" says Sviggum.

Sviggum says he's listening to what some have dubbed the "Krinkie faction," a group of 15 to 20 fiscal conservatives led by Phil Krinkie of Shoreview, who objected to last year's unusual agreement that divvied up the surplus in thirds for the House, Senate and governor to spend.

Krinkie says Sviggum's tendency to show his cards too early or in the heat of negotiations has resulted in Republicans getting smaller tax cuts than they wanted. He says his caucus needs a new approach this time.

"If we put the same team against the same opponents on the field and we don't have a different game plan, we are likely to achieve or have the result of the same or similar outcome," says Krinkie.

Sviggum has already made some changes in response to his critics. He closed some caucus meetings, much to the chagrin of the Capitol press corps, and has offered few specifics about Republicans' agenda for the session. He also is trying to be more inclusive, by letting some caucus members help him make committee assignments.

Democrats in the House say Sviggum also needs to include them in the process. DFL House Minority Leader Tom Pugh of South St. Paul says if just two Republicans decide to oppose a Republican bill, Sviggum will need the DFL caucus to supply votes.

"It's much easier to do that if members of both parties feel that they've played a role in developing those bills throughout the process. I'm hoping that the Speaker won't simply be calling upon members the last day of the legislative session after having in essence shut them out all the way along," says Pugh.

Democrats in the Senate, on the other hand, have no such incentive to reach out across the aisle, with a solid 12-seat majority.

"On some of these things, the governor and the House are lining up on one side, and the Senate and the people of Minnesota are lining up on the other side."

- John Hottinger
DFL Senate Assistant Majority Leader
The other factor likely to affect dealings between the three legs of the tri-partisan stool this session is the often-contentious relationship between the governor and lawmakers, a tension heightened by legislative criticism over Ventura's new outside job as an analyst for the Xtreme Football League.

DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe of Erskine doesn't think Ventura should take the XFL job, but says his criticism shouldn't affect his ability to work with the governor.

"It doesn't increase stress in our working relationships when he constantly attacks the Legislature or legislators individually; as far as I'm concerned he can do that, he seems to like to do that. I have made my position known, I don't think he ought to do that, he has chosen to do it - that's fine. That's up to him," Moe said.

Ventura declined requests for a pre-session interview, but has seemed eager to spar with legislators who question his outside earnings, saying "bring it on." On MPR's Midmorning in December, he deflected criticism over his moonlighting by turning the tables on lawmakers.

"They want to shine the light on me? Let's shine the light on them for a moment. Let's talk about elected legislators. If they call themselves a consultant and they do contract-for-hire work, they don't even have to say who they work for," Ventura said.

Ventura's XFL job will take him out of state for 10 weekends in the middle of the session, which some lawmakers believe will make him somewhat of an absentee landlord. He delivers his state-of-the-state address on the second day of the 2001 session, and will then take a week off for a personal vacation.

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