Organization pushing awareness for unicameral issue

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 24, 2000


Monday, January 24, 2000

No. SingleHouse is not a home for the unattached or unwed.

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Neither is it the latest idea to solve housing problems.

It’s an idea that no less than six Minnesota governors have championed going back to Floyd Olson and its supporters say it is an idea whose time has come.

SingleHouse is the name of the organization promoting a single-house legislature – a unicameral chamber instead of the bicameral two houses that Minnesota has.

Charles A. Slocum is the organization’s general manager.

"The Minnesota House with 134 members and Senate with 67 members represents the fourth largest legislature in the country. That’s 201 legislators," Slocum said. "Under a single-house legislature, Minnesota would have 135 members."

California has 120 members in its bicameral legislature, Texas has 181, Florida has 160 and Wisconsin has 132. All have greater populations than Minnesota.

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature. It has 49 members called senators.

Slocum believes a single-house legislature would bring more openness, accountability, responsiveness and effectiveness to state government.

Last week, the House government operations committee concluded its last hearing at Rochester on the issue, that Slocum admitted is "just reaching a level of awareness."

He and his SingleHouse organization hope to convince the 2000 Legislature to put it on November ballots and let the citizens of Minnesota decide.

"A single-house or unicameral legislature will reduce the number of elected members, create a single legislative body and provide four-year terms with half of the members being elected every two years," Slocum said.

The current Legislature must place a constitutional amendment on the November ballots before Minnesota voters will be allowed to consider the idea.

"All it would take to pass this proposal if it is on the ballots in November is a simple majority of the voters. That’s 1.2 million affirmative votes," Slocum said.

Slocum said he believes that is possible, because Gov. Jesse Ventura has championed the idea and now state Rep. Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon), speaker of the House, has agreed to carry the bill calling for the issue to be placed on ballots to the 2000 Legislature.

In addition, state Rep. Tim Pawlenty (R-Eagan) and House majority leader, supports the idea.

It also has support from state Rep. Tom Pugh (D-St. Paul) and minority leader of the House.

In the Senate, state Sen. Roger Moe (D-Erskine), the Senate majority leader, is against it, but Senate Minority Leader Dick Day (R-Owatonna) is for it and so is state Sen. Allan Spear (D-Minneapolis) and president of the Senate.

Slocum said he likes the bipartisan support the proposal has received, but he said the awareness level of Minnesotans about a unicameral Legislature must be raised.

"There’s broad support out there for the idea, but not the awareness it needs. Most people surveyed say they want more information," he said.

George Pillsbury and Gene Merriam, two former state legislators, created SingleHouse to push the idea. In interviews, Pillsbury said a large amount of "total duplication of effort" has led to the power, not of the legislators, but of conference committees or the so-called "Third House," where all of the major legislation is rewritten.

Merriam said the existing two houses "generally consider legislation fairly deliberately" through the first several months of a legislative session. "Then, all of a sudden in the last few weeks of the session this deliberative process ends up in turmoil as all the major bills go to conference committees," Merriam said.

Slocum said numbers speak volumes about the arcane bicameral system of state government. The House, Senate and joint House-Senate budgets totaled $111.5 million in 1998-99. Total staffs were 574. The House introduced 2,475 bills and the Senate introduced 2,281 in the 1999 legislative session, but only 250 passed.

Slocum expects a single-house legislature to save more than $25 million annually, but that’s not the main reason he believes in the unicameral idea.

"It’s about accountability," Slocum said. "It takes the decision-making out of the hands of the conference committees.

"Each voter will have one representative and with a single house, time and money won’t be wasted. It’s a more efficient style of government."

Slocum said Ventura’s interest has "helped elevate the discussion" and more people are now aware of the idea.

What about Minnesotans, facing a presidential election year and one in which all members of the Minnesota House and Senate are up for re-election? Will they notice? Do they care?

"Most Minnesotans, I believe, are curious and willing to put the issue on the ballots," he said. "There’s overwhelming support from citizens who would like to see the debate move forward. ‘We deserve a right to vote on it,’ they are saying."