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Gauging Ventura's Contributions
By Michael Khoo
January 16, 2001
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Minnesota's experiment in tripartite government begins its third year this month, and Gov. Jesse Ventura says the system is a success. But leaders in the state Legislature say the governor has yet to make his mark in any fundamental sense and that it's too soon to reach a verdict on Minnesota's peculiar arrangement.

Listen to Ventura's comments at the Humphrey Institute forum on tripartisan government.
SHORTLY AFTER VENTURA TOOK OFFICE, the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute sponsored a discussion on what a three-way split of power might look like. Two years later, the usual suspects were back on campus to offer their insights. Ventura told his lunch-time audience that the new arrangement was certainly no worse than the familiar two-party system. And when it comes to innovative ideas, the governor says his administration is working overtime.

"Ideas like a more accountable and efficient legislative process. Ideas like long-term funding for a multi-modal transportation system. Ideas like cutting-edge tax reform that would adapt our tax system to the new economy. Ideas like reforming the way we pay teachers. Ideas like health care for all children," Ventura said.

However, every one of those ideas has either failed in the past two legislative sessions or faces long-odds in the current session. Ventura's most notable accomplishment may be the license-tab fee cuts he negotiated last year. Otherwise, DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says the mix of tax cuts and new spending on education and transportation approved in recent sessions aren't so different from what you might have expected under a more traditional governor. And he says much of Ventura's success is due to the vibrant economy.

"If you're dealt a four-ace fiscal hand, it's hard to screw it up," said Moe.

More to the point, Moe says Ventura has yet to prove he has a long-term vision for the state or the political skills necessary to enact real reforms.

"For a governor to think that you can measure that in a two-year time frame is extremely presumptuous and demonstrates a certain naiveness (sic) about public policy and how it plays out, particularly in this state," he said.

"If you're dealt a four-ace fiscal hand, it's hard to screw it up."

- Sen. Roger Moe
Ventura has only recently begun to fill in the details of his so-called Big Plan. His most ambitious proposal is to transfer basic K-12 education funding from local property-tax rolls to the state's general fund. To make up for the extra state expense, he'd broaden the sales tax to include currently exempt services such as attorney's fees or landscaping expenses.

House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty says he welcomes the debate on tax reforms, but he questions whether tripartisanship can work through all the tangles.

"If you are a person who has great and big and grand and bold hopes and visions, and you want quantum change and you want bold change, tripartisan government, I think, is not going to deliver for you. It is a formula that is inherently designed for incrementalism notwithstanding the grand rhetoric," said Pawlenty.

But state Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock says it's unfair for lawmakers to downplay the governor's achievements in the past two years. Wheelock, who was appointed by Ventura, says legislators were clearly singing a different tune on the campaign trail last year.

"They have been applauding themselves - the incumbents - about the progress they've made on key issues affecting Minnesotans. And it's been made during the last two years when this governor was office," she said.

Wheelock says Ventura prefers to go over the heads of lawmakers and connect directly with Minnesotans. And while observers can question the effectiveness of that style, Wheelock says it's had one clear result. She says Ventura's time in office has generated a new enthusiasm for politics and encouraged more citizens than ever to participate. Minnesota Public Radio.

Michael Khoo covers politics for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at