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Some nuances and whopping deviations

Capitol Notebook

Posted: Sunday, January 07, 2001

What a difference a state makes.

Tomorrow I begin covering my first Alaska legislative session. After 10 years reporting on state government and politics in Minnesota, I'm already noticing a lot of differences here some of them nuances, some of them whopping deviations.

I was the state Capitol correspondent for the St. Cloud Times from 1984-91 and I was managing editor of a political insiders' newspaper, the St. Paul Legal Ledger, from 1997-99. Accustomed to the ways of Minnesota, I am constantly finding the unexpected here.

For example, I haven't yet seen Gov. Tony Knowles insult a reporter.

Since the election of Jesse Ventura in 1998, it would be news if there was a gubernatorial press conference in Minnesota in which the integrity of the media wasn't questioned. Ventura's predecessor, Republican Arne Carlson, also had a penchant for the sarcastic and caustic, making the 1990s the Decade of Thick Skin for the Capitol press corps in St. Paul. Carlson's predecessor, the late Democrat Rudy Perpich, could be personable, but in a fit of pique he once referred to us as "the worst Capitol press corps in the nation," which prompted the printing of T-shirts proclaiming, "We're bad."

Knowles, so far, has struck me as understated. For example, he suggests in a round-about way that legislators might end up being irresponsible if they're too stingy on the budget this year. Ventura just calls Minnesota legislators "gutless cowards," which is interpreted by his admirers as honest, as opposed to uncivil and abusive.

It's also a nice Alaska touch that Knowles brings his black Labrador to news conferences. Ventura doesn't do that with his bulldog, Franklin, although Franklin was infamous for his flatulence during closed-door negotiations with legislators over the budget in 1999.

While I haven't yet observed Alaska legislators in action, there are differences there, too.

For example, the political elasticity that allowed Jerry Mackie to go from House minority leader as a Democrat to Senate majority leader as a Republican is just about without parallel in Minnesota. The closest example would be crusty state Sen. Charlie Berg of rural Chokio, who was a Republican until the mid-'80s, then an independent, then a Democrat in the early '90s, then an independent again. But Berg didn't hold key leadership positions in any of his incarnations.

Speaking of leadership, there's a lot more turnover here. In the Minnesota Senate, the most powerful position is majority leader, not president, which is mostly a ceremonial post. Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, a Democrat, has just begun his 21st consecutive year in that position.

In the Minnesota House, currently controlled by Republicans, it is generally assumed that the speaker will keep his or her job from one election cycle to the next, unless the other party takes control. In Alaska, Republican Speaker Brian Porter is now in his second term leading the chamber, but in his first term he presided over former Republican speakers Gail Phillips and Ramona Barnes, now both departed.

The formal structure of Alaska government is different, as well. Minnesota elects its secretary of state, auditor, attorney general and treasurer, although the last position is being phased out. There is no Constitutional Budget Reserve there, and so a veto override on the budget can be accomplished with a two-thirds rather than a three-fourths vote of lawmakers. The equivalent to the Department of Environmental Conservation is called, more aggressively, the Pollution Control Agency.

Any way you look at it, I'm in for an education. I'm looking forward to it.

Bill McAllister's column will appear on Sundays throughout the session. He can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.



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