The curtain rises Tuesday on the last legislative session of Gov. Jesse Ventura's first term in office. It will also be the governor's first battle with a budget deficit, projected to be a whopping $2 billion over the next year and a half. But Ventura has surprised many observers by negotiating politically tricky waters before. Here's a review of the high - and low - points of Ventura's past year, and a look forward to the upcoming session.
This time last year, the state was projecting a substantial budget surplus. It was a time to be "fat and sassy," as Ventura recently described it. Although some might say the only thing fat and sassy was the governor's upcoming extracurricular debut, as a color commentator for the newly-minted XFL football league.
Ventura sat down behind the XFL microphone last February - while many Minnesotans bit their nails in anticipation of what the governor might say during the over-hyped, over-sexed match-ups. In the end, Ventura came across fairly tame.
Although Ventura continued to take heat from some lawmakers for his moonlighting, the public soon forgot about his second job - forgot, in fact, about the league entirely. The XFL never found an audience and expired after one season. But by that point, the governor was embroiled in a larger debate.
At the state Capitol, the Republican-controlled House and the DFL-controlled Senate were at an impasse over budget issues. When the clock ran out on the regular session, eight of nine budget bills had still not been passed, including the governor's signature property tax legislation.
The Legislature returned in special session in June to break the logjam - and did so with only hours to spare. Yet Ventura rode high the final days - and emerged triumphant when both houses approved his property tax reforms.
"The economic times were right. The will of the people was there. And we didn't give up when the going got tough. We swung hard and we connected. This bill, ladies and gentlemen, is a home run," Ventura said.
The protracted budget debate, however, had brought the state to the brink of a government shutdown. Ventura signed a raft of last-minute legislation in the final hours of June 30 - the last day of the previous budget cycle.
A few months later, the state was facing a shutdown of another sort - negotiators for the state and its two largest unions found themselves at in impasse over state workers' contracts. Half of the state's employees - from janitors to food inspectors to nursing home workers - were poised to walk off the job. In early October, they did. And Ventura was viewed by some as less than sympathetic.
"I respect their right to strike. Certainly. I'm a vested member in two unions myself," Ventura said. "But let me also give you a very harsh reality....this is the United States. If you feel that your job is unfair to you, you can go get another one."
After two weeks, the unions accepted contracts that fell short in many respects of what they'd hoped for. But the economic times were tight, said Ventura. And the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were making them tighter.
The terrorist fallout was also clouding the governor's always rocky media relations. Following a trip to the World Trade Center disaster site, Ventura became riled when a journalist questioned the exclusion of Minnesota reporters from ground zero. That dispute set off a month-long boycott of the Capitol press corps.
"I feel rejuvenated in this job, because it's a new challenge. I went through three years of budget surplus and giving back rebate checks. Now it's gone 180 degrees the other way."
- Gov. Jesse Ventura
The governor also cited Sept. 11 while explaining his initial hands-off approach during the first phases of the Minnesota Twins contraction saga. That inspired a testy exchange with a caller named Bill on an MPR call-in show. Ventura interrupted the caller, and at one point took off his headphones so he couldn't hear the caller's comments.
Shortly after that exchange, Ventura's popularity took a noticeable dip in the polls. The governor did eventually take a more forceful approach to the Twins problem, calling in business leaders to discuss the team's future, and appointing six members to a tripartisan stadium task force. At that point, however, a new crisis was emerging.
By December, the state was facing a projected $2 billion dollar deficit - the first of Ventura's tenure. But he says the difficulties don't intimidate him.
"I feel rejuvenated in this job, because it's a new challenge. I went through three years of budget surplus and giving back rebate checks. Now it's gone 180 degrees the other way," said Ventura.
Political observers, however, say it won't just be the budget woes Ventura will have to deal with. Over his three years - and particularly during the last session - the governor has tussled with a growing number of interest groups. K-12 and higher education fought for more money than they received last year - and let's not forget the state workers' strike. Republican analyst Sarah Janecek says Ventura may be more vulnerable this year.
"Lots of teachers voted for him. The governor's not been good to K-12. A lot of public employees voted for him, and he's not been good to them. Anytime you serve in office you start to tick off certain constituent groups. It's inevitable," Janecek says.
"But the governor has, in each of the last three sessions, found himself the deal-maker. Positioning himself somewhere between DFLers in the Senate and Republicans in the House, he's managed to cut license tab fees, return surpluses through a sales tax rebate, and push through his landmark property tax reforms.
This year, he's hinted he'll push ahead again if lawmakers don't quickly agree on a solution to the state's deficit. Democratic consultant Bob Meek says that could backfire.
"He has intimated that if the Legislature didn't act by the end of the first week, 'The heck with them, I'll just go ahead and unallot.' Well, more power to you, governor. I mean, it is exactly what the legislators would like - for Ventura to carry it singly on his back," Meek says.
The governor has recommended a mix of drawing down state reserves, cutting spending, and raising taxes to fill the fiscal gap. Legislators have already coined the terms "Ventura Deficit" and "Jesse Taxes" as weapons in the debate. The governor, however, predicts he'll emerge on top once again.
"When sides dig their heels in to the point that they do sometimes, and no one gives, it becomes very difficult and cantankerous to face it. But again, this is one that they - if they do that on the budget or the correction of the budget, it's going to cost the public even more money," says Ventura. "And they're going to hear from me even stronger. I think if they do that, it makes me more powerful."
Powerful enough, perhaps, to seek re-election - and win - even during tight economic times. Most observers say if Ventura runs again, he's the clear front-runner. So far, this year's political jabs are aimed squarely at him - coming hardest from those with an active interest in Ventura's job.More from MPR