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The political legacy of Jesse Ventura
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Gov. Jesse Ventura says he's not worried about the fate of his legislative achievements. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
As Gov. Jesse Ventura prepares to leave office, he ends a term that saw one of the most dramatic four-year shifts in Minnesota's financial picture. Ventura inherited a $4 billion surplus, and leaves office with the state facing a $4.5 billion deficit. Will he be remembered as the man at the helm when the state's economy took a nosedive? Or as a competent CEO who left a lasting stamp on state government?

St. Paul, Minn. — Four months after his surprise victory, Gov. Jesse Ventura delivered his first State of the State address. He told Minnesotans his term would not be business as usual.

"The legacy of this administration will be provoking people out of their apathy. It's not my job to make people feel comfortable," Ventura said.

Ventura laid out his vision for the state: the best public education system in the world, smaller state government and a simpler tax system. He also had a more specific request.

"I want to ride a train by the year 2002," Ventura said.

So how well did he do? The Hiawatha light-rail line between Minneapolis and the airport is under construction, but Ventura won't be able to ride it until 2004.

State spending has gone from $21 billion over two years to $27 billion. The quality of the state's education system is hard to measure, but a report card released by the Ventura administration gives it a grade of 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Perhaps Ventura's most monumental legislative achievement is an overhaul of the property tax system. The reforms passed in 2001 were designed to simplify the system by making the property tax a truly local tax.

"It's the biggest change in the structure of how state and local government is financed in about 30 years," said Matt Smith.

Smith was Ventura's revenue commissioner, and the man charged with taking Ventura's vision of a simpler property tax system and getting it through the Legislature. The reforms shifted the entire cost of basic education to the state, and reduced business and apartment property tax rates to be more in line with homeowners' rates.

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Image Better for business, says Blazar

While Ventura himself didn't negotiate the changes with the Legislature, Smith says Ventura was the driving force behind them.

Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says Ventura deserves credit for property tax reform.

"I think we have to give Gov. Ventura credit for A: saying 'Commissioner Smith, go to work on it,' B: 'Commissioner Smith, don't stop,' C: 'even if it takes you 18 months to come up with a proposal, stick with it,' and then D: 'when we get into this legislative session, even if it's protracted, stick with it,'" said Blazar.

Blazar says Minnesota's business climate is now more competitive than it was when Ventura took office, due largely to the property tax reforms and the income tax cuts pushed by Ventura.

Ventura also persuaded the Legislature to cut car license tab fees, and rebate nearly $2 billion to taxpayers in what were commonly called "Jesse checks".

Legislative leaders say Ventura could have accomplished even more if he'd been more willing to work with the Legislature.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum says Ventura's relationship with key lawmakers was hot and cold.

"There are times he just charmed you tremendously. You know, just very, very charming," Sviggum said. "And in the next minute, you'll be shaking your head and saying, 'you know, I don't want anything to do with the individual.'"

Ventura tried unsuccessfully to broaden Minnesota's sales tax base by including not just goods, but services -- a reform many financial experts say is greatly needed.

Lawmakers refused to put one of his key issues, a one-house Legislature, on the ballot. And when the surpluses turned to deficits this year, he failed to persuade the Legislature to adopt his budget fix, a mix of tax increases, spending cuts and use of the budget reserves.

Ventura says the state's massive deficit doesn't have his fingerprints on it. But his predecessor, Republican Arne Carlson, says Ventura must take the blame for failing to protect the state against such a serious deficit.

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Image Against all odds

"I think you do have to pay attention to who's responsible for outcomes," Carlson said. "What bothers me is that the signals for a recession were there, and yet the governor and the Legislature plunged ahead with this enormous Big Plan tax cut. Tax cuts are wonderful when you can afford them."

Ventura's finance commissioner, Pam Wheelock, says the governor did propose a fiscally responsible plan that would have minimized the current deficit, and lawmakers discarded it. She says Ventura didn't have a single ally in the Legislature for most of his term, yet he still managed to push through some of his major priorities.

"The good news is that it took both of these parties in both of these houses until the last legislative session to really effectively figure out how to box out the governor, because they had no interest in having an Independence Party governor look effective," Wheelock said.

Political leaders may try to undo some of Ventura's successful policy initiatives. Ventura lists as one of his accomplishments the endowments set up with money from the state's tobacco settlement. Interest from the roughly $900 million in endowments is used for smoking prevention, medical education and research.

Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty says the pot of money is a likely target, as he looks for ways to address a $4.5 billion budget deficit. Pawlenty and Republican lawmakers are also unlikely to put any more money into light rail. Some don't even want to fund the Hiawatha line that's under construction.

Ventura says he's not worried about the fate of his legislative achievements. "The new governor-elect will do what he wants to do. He will have his agenda," Ventura said. "I don't worry about whether he dismantles what I did. I know that we did the best while we were here, and I cannot control what happens after me."

One thing lawmakers can't change is Ventura's judicial appointments. The governor appointed 70 judges during his term, including two to the seven-member Minnesota Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz says Ventura's appointments have been highly regarded in the legal community. She says she talked to Ventura about the importance of his judicial picks shortly after he was elected.

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Image Blatz applauds judicial appointments

"I said, 'governor, I do not know how long you'll be governor, but the appointments that you make I think on average will be with the judiciary for at least 20 years serving the public,'" Blatz said. "So in a very real way, judicial appointments by a governor are their legacy, and such an important legacy, because this is the arena that people take the most distressful parts of their lives."

Blatz says Ventura appointed nearly a fourth of the state's entire judiciary during his term, far more than most governors. In addition to his judicial appointments, Ventura received kudos for his cabinet picks. Ventura assembled a multi-partisan team of commissioners who were widely acclaimed for their expertise. Many of Ventura's commissioners say he was the best boss they ever had, because he had clear expectations and didn't micromanage them.

His revenue commissioner, Matt Smith, says above and beyond Ventura's policy initiatives, he thinks Ventura will most be remembered for getting average citizens interested in politics. He says Ventura had a gift for putting complicated policy matters into everyday language. Smith recalled a stop during a bus trip to outstate Minnesota.

"And the governor went into this bar and it was full of local people -- a lot of farmers and retired people -- and I think he may even have had a beer in his hand at the time, and he gave a speech about how important it was for us to have free trade with China, and everybody was just nodding along. And it was something I have never seen before, and we may never see again," Smith said.

Ventura doesn't like to talk about how he'll be remembered, but he says he often hears from people who say they never paid attention to state government until he was elected.

"And if that's my legacy, that's a pretty big one. Because that tells me that everyone elected before me couldn't accomplish that, and it took me to do it," said Ventura.

The term of Minnesota's 38th governor, Jesse Ventura, ends Jan. 6, 2002.

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