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MPR’s Laura McCallum examines Governor Jesse Ventura’s legacy, taking a look at taxes, state budget, education, light rail, deficit, and judiciary.

As Governor 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 four-billion dollar surplus, and leaves office with the state facing a four-and-a-half billion dollar deficit. Will he be remembered as the man at the helm when the state's economy took a nosedive? Or as a competent reform-er CEO who left a lasting stamp on state government?

This is one of a two-part series.

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LAURA MCCALLUM: Four months after his surprise victory, Governor Jesse Ventura delivered his first state of the state address. He told Minnesotans his term would not be business as usual.

JESSE VENTURA: The legacy of this administration will be provoking people out of their apathy. It's not my job to make people feel comfortable.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

JESSE VENTURA: I want to ride a train by the year 2002.


LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

MATT SMITH: Probably, it's the biggest change in the structure of how state and local government is financed in about 30 years.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Matt 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 reform 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. While Ventura himself didn't negotiate the changes with the legislature, Smith Ventura was the driving force behind them. Bill Blazar of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce says Ventura deserves credit for property tax reform.

BILL BLAZAR: I think we have to give Governor 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.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

STEVE SVIGGUM: There are times, he just charmed you tremendously. He's just very, very charming. And in the next minute, you'll be shaking your head and saying, I don't want anything to do with the individual.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

ARNE CARLSON: I think you do have to pay attention to who's responsible for outcomes. 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 planned tax cut. Tax cuts are wonderful when you can afford them.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

PAM WHEELOCK: 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. I mean, they had no interest in having an independence party governor look effective.

LAURA MCCALLUM: And political leaders may try to undo some of Ventura's successful policy initiatives. Ventura lists as one of his accomplishments the endowment 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. Governor Elect Tim Pawlenty says the pot of money is a likely target as he looks for ways to address the 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.

JESSE VENTURA: The new governor elect will do what he wants to do. He will have his agenda. 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.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

KATHLEEN BLATZ: 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. 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 their most distressful parts of their lives.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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 involved 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.

MATT SMITH: And the governor went into this bar, and it was full of local people and 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.

LAURA MCCALLUM: 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.

JESSE VENTURA: 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.

LAURA MCCALLUM: Minnesota's 38th Governor Jesse Ventura, his term ends January 6. At the Capitol, I'm Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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