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Minnesota Legislature Opens Session
By Laura McCallum
January 3, 2001
Part of Minnesota Public Radio's online coverage of Session 2001
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The 2001 legislative session got underway Wednesday with Democrats and Republicans sparring in the House. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Gov. Ventura picked up his first party ally.

MPR's Midday program visited the Capitol and heard from lawmakers firsthand about the new session on its opening day. Listen to lawmakers and analysts online. (Hour One | Hour Two)

GOV. VENTURA'S INDEPENDENCE PARTY has yet to get a legislative victory at the polls. But the party has nevertheless gained its first legislator in former DFLer Bob Lessard of International Falls. Lessard stood next to a beaming Ventura as he announced that he would do everything he could to advance the governor's legislative agenda. Ventura says he and the blunt-talking Lessard share a similar style.

"He's an independent person who's gonna stand up for what he believes in, regardless of party affiliation," Ventura said. "I think he's custom made for the Independence Party of Minnesota, he's a perfect fit for us, because that's what a lot of us are, I mean people are sitting back here today shocked that he's left the DFL and joined the Independence Party."

Ventura says Lessard may pave the way for other legislators to defect to the Independence Party. Lessard is a former chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee who left the DFL last summer and endorsed Republican George W. Bush for president.

"I ran as an independent and I won. All we did was take a 't' off the end and add a 'ce,'" said Lessard. "People know what I am, I think I've been there for 24 years, I've been pretty independent for 24 years, and my record shows that."

Lessard says one of the main reasons he decided to align with Ventura was to change the public perception that the governor and the Legislature are constantly at each other's throats.

On the opening day of session, legislators weren't throwing barbs at the governor, but the mood was fairly testy in the Minnesota House. Many Democrats are still smarting over their committee assignments, after Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon bumped 25 of the 65 DFL members from their first-choice committees.

DFL Minority Leader Tom Pugh of South St. Paul says Sviggum's move doesn't bode well for bipartisanship this session.

"To start by saying to more than a third of the Democratic members of this House that 'I don't care, as Speaker, what your preferences are, I don't care what your highest priorities are, I'm going to assign you where I see fit,' it's kind of a slap in the face and a bad start for this session," Pugh said.

Sen. Bob Lessard (left) became Gov. Ventura's first legislative ally when he defected to the Independence Party on January 3rd. See a larger image.
(MPR Photo/)
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Sviggum says he shuffled Pugh's recommendations to create gender and geographic balance on committees, which then created a domino effect and forced him to make further changes. He accuses Pugh of acting unprofessionally in demanding changes.

"We are dealing with a minority leader that swore at me and hung up the phone. I think there'll be an apology or ought be an apology coming from that end," Sviggum said.

Sviggum fared better in his own caucus, and was re-elected speaker on a party-line vote, despite talk there might be a challenge to his leadership from within his own party. He says his caucus probably isn't as united as it was two years ago - when Republicans first won the majority - but says he's reaching out to disgruntled members.

In the Senate, much of the drama on opening day was also tied to committee assignments. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to get Lessard reinstated on the Rules Committee, and DFL Sen. John Marty failed in his attempt to remove DFLer Sam Solon of Duluth as chair of the Commerce Committee. Marty argued Solon is using a loophole to violate a rule limiting chairs to two consecutive terms. Solon stepped down as committee chair for one year in 1996, after pleading guilty to misusing his Senate phone account.

Senators also elected a new president, DFLer Don Samuelson of Brainerd. Samuelson is opposed to legalized abortion, and abortion-rights activists worry that he'll allow abortion amendments to unrelated bills on the floor. But Samuelson tried to alleviate some of those concerns right after being sworn in.

"I'll do my best to carry on in the tradition of the good senators before me that did an outstanding job, and to be fair and impartial," he said.

Following the opening day festivities, lawmakers begin the arduous process of passing another two-year budget. Legislators say they're interested to hear the priorities Gov. Ventura will stress in his State of the State address. Although Ventura now has a caucus of one to carry his bills, he has yet to start selling his agenda to the rest of the Legislature.

Laura McCallum is Minnesota Public Radio's Capitol Bureau Chief. Reach her via e-mail at