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Q&A: Republican Rep. Kurt Daudt on his hectic first session

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Kurt Daudt
Kurt Daudt, R-Isanti, checks out the House chamber at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on December 17, 2010. Daudt is a freshman Republican member of the House from District 17A.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

State Rep. Kurt Daudt said his first legislative session has been hectic at times, but he's optimistic that the session will end on time.

"It's very interesting," Daudt (R-17A), told MPR News on Wednesday. "It's been pretty hectically paced and we're certainly keeping busy."

Daudt shared his perspective on life as a freshman lawmaker on Wednesday, as part of a regular series on All Things Considered. Since the November 2010 election, All Things Considered has been checking in with Daudt and veteran DFL Sen. Sandy Pappas to get their firsthand perspectives on the changed balance of power during this session. 

An edited transcript of the interview with Rep. Daudt is below.

Tom Crann: How do you characterize the mood of the session so far?

Rep. Kurt Daudt: Well, it's been interesting. Obviously, you've said I'm a freshman, it's all new to me, but it's very interesting. It's been pretty hectically paced and we're certainly keeping busy. I know we changed some of the deadlines and moved some of that up so we'd have some more time, knowing that we had a large budget deficit, we wanted to allow some more time to have those conversations with the governor. So we've been moving very quickly.

Crann: You used the word interesting in the Minnesota sense of the word, as a euphemism for something different?

Checking out the Capitol
Kurt Daudt, R-Isanti, walks through the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., on December 17, 2010.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Daudt:  Well, it's easy when you're down here, I can see how people say, 'Don't let the walls of the Capitol here,' you know, 'This isn't the center of the earth.' And it's easy to get caught up in the rat race down here, but it doesn't operate maybe like the private sector or like the world I come from. So it is new, but it is very interesting. It's different, but it's different in a good way, too.

Crann: Your leadership is saying things will end on time, May 23, with a balanced budget. Some skepticism from Democrats, although people in the governor's office are saying it's on track to do that as well. Where do you see it?

Daudt:  We feel like that's the case, and we've seen a willingness from the governor's office to work with us. We know there's some sticking points and some things that we disagree on, but we do see a willingness from the governor's office to talk to us about that stuff. I believe we're going to have our first omnibus bill, the Ag bill, we think that's going to be signed by the governor probably this week. So we're hopeful that we will get out of here on time.

Crann:  We talked to the veteran DFLer Sandy Pappas earlier, and as far as she's concerned, she said the Republicans haven't shown any signs of compromise. So she doesn't see it ending on time the way it is now. Would you agree with that?

Daudt:  I wouldn't. I guess I would take issue with that. We have, as I stated earlier, we've moved up our budget deadlines on the fiscal bills ... For those that aren't familiar with the legislative process, typically they have the policy deadlines first, and then the fiscal bill deadlines second. And we reversed that to allow extra time really for the committee process, and to have hearings, and to involve stakeholders in getting that work done. 

Like I said, I'm new here, but I think this is the earliest that we've really had all of those omnibus bills now passed off the House floor. So the governor can see our full balanced budget, and those are right now in conference committee getting the differences worked out with the Senate. And we've invited the governor's office to come in and talk to us about those, and we've made some adjustments in that first bill that we do expect the governor to sign. So, so far the process looks like it's working.

Crann:  From your perspective, how do you feel the Democrats have been toward the new majority? Have they been willing to talk, willing to cooperate? Is there much talking back and forth?

Daudt:  You know, I think so. My interaction personally with them is really just in the committee process and on the floor. I've joked a little bit with people back in my district that it's interesting. What you see on TV, either in the committee process or on the floor, isn't always the way it is. Sometimes it appears that it's very partisan and very, like we hate each other, but it's actually--.

Crann:  Do you?

Daudt:  No, but we walk out of the room and we have a lot in common because we're both here doing the same thing. I think that both sides really believe, though we might have a philosophical difference on how to get to the end, I feel like we both are here to do what we feel is right. And I think there's a respect for that process.

Crann:  The governor has said that the budget numbers that the GOP is using in both the House and the Senate, he said they're off by about a billion, and he said they're being pulled out of thin air. How do you respond to that?

Daudt:  There has been some discussion about that. We feel that our numbers are good. The fiscal notes that we've been getting on some of our bills we feel haven't necessarily been accurate. We've been working with the departments, the respective departments in those areas, to work out those differences.

Crann:  Like Management and Budget?

Daudt:  Yeah, if it's the HHS bill, it's DHS that we've been working with, but they're the ones who really prepare those fiscal notes, so we work with them to work out the differences. And fiscal notes are advisory, and we're not putting out numbers that we think are imaginary. We feel that our numbers are good, and we feel that it's a very good balanced budget that we've put forward through these omnibus bills. So I understand that they're a little critical that they think we're pulling stuff out of thin air, but it's really not the case.

Crann:  When it comes to the fiscal notes, because there has been a little controversy about that, at what point do you as Republicans decide not to go with those fiscal notes? And what do you replace them with? Where do you get the numbers then?

Daudt:  Well, I think the chairs of, and I want to be clear here, too. It's not like we're billions and billions of dollars off and we're just completely disregarding it.

Crann:  But over a billion in the House and Senate.

Daudt:  And some of that is the waivers that we've requested, that we're using in our budget process as a request from the federal government. I think $300 million is a waiver request, and if the federal government doesn't give us that, then we've got to fill that gap somehow. I think it's isolated incidences where we're differing with the departments that are creating the fiscal notes.

Crann:  So far, would you say that you and the other freshmen Republicans are doing what you feel you were elected and sent to do?

Daudt:  Yes, I do. Personally I've got a few issues that have been important to my area, geographically, and I think there's just in general overall some issues that we all care about that affect everybody in the state. One of my issues is Green Acres. I think we've come up with a real good fix to that problem, and I know you and I have talked about that in the past. 

And just in general, I feel like my other freshmen colleagues, it is a little different coming in, jumping into the middle of this and trying to figure out where to hang your coat, first of all, but then how to make new laws and do the things that we all campaigned on, but I really feel like the group has been very engaged and jumped right into the deep end of the pool and done a good job.

Crann:  There has been criticism that the Republicans came in, if you will, sort of guns a' blazing, in a rush, and weren't being as deliberate as they should've been. Did you see that happening?

Daudt:  Not really. I've heard that criticism, and I feel like it's unwarranted. And I think some of what they're talking about is juggling the deadlines and moving the fiscal deadline up. We had hours and hours and hours of testimony and hearings on all of these bills in the committees. And we did that to allow for some extra time in negotiating with the governor to come out with a final budget that we can all agree to so we can get out of here on time, but I think that it's a little bit unwarranted. We really have, from my perspective, been very transparent and the process has been, I've actually been very impressed with it. It seems to be working very well. 

Crann:  On the Democratic side, when it comes to the budget, you have, at least from the governor, a tax on Minnesota's highest earners, and the Republicans vowing no new taxes at all. Where do you see that, at the end game, where do you see the compromise there? Isn't there going to have to be some source of new revenue? Can either side stick to their positions?

Daudt:  That's the million-dollar question. I bet if I had the answer I'd probably have a better title than I do, but joking aside, I do know that my caucus really feel strongly about not increasing taxes. And we feel like we've got additional revenue. Some of the things that I've had to adjust in my own thinking coming down here is everybody talks about cuts. Well, we're actually spending more money this biennium than we did in the last biennium. And only in St. Paul do they call that a cut. And of course what they're talking about is that spending is set to increase, and really the cut is from what the projected increase in spending was going to be. 

So we really feel like we can still live within our means and serve the residents of Minnesota well and come up with a budget that serves its purpose. Really, when we get to the end, though, are we going to be flexible in that position? I can't answer that. I guess we're going to have to see how the session plays out.

Crann:  Both sides are probably going to be flexible on some position.

Daudt:  There's going to have to be some flexibility because we're not in the same corner right now. So there's a big distance to cover here, and we'll see how that happens or how well that works before the end of the session.

Crann:  You say both sides aren't in the same corner, but do you think the distance is too far to meet by May 23?

Daudt:  I don't. I feel like, as I said, the governor has been good to work with, and part of my role in leadership, I've had the opportunity to go over to the residence a couple of times and have breakfast and talk to him in a small group with our leadership. I really get the impression that he wants to do what he believes is right, and I don't see him as somebody who's entrenched in party politics or wanting to prove some sort of a point. I think he really wants to do what's right, and he's been very good to work with. 

So I think we'll see what happens. And of course, he's one guy, and we're 134 in the House, and it takes a little more to get just even our caucus all on the same page as to what the final answer's going to be, but we'll have to see what's on the table as we get close to the end and what, first of all, a majority of the members of the House will support, but it'll be interesting to see, and I'm sure everybody will be watching.

Crann:  What has changed, since you've gotten down here to St. Paul now and spent some time in the session, about your perceptions, the way it would go versus the way it has gone?

Daudt:  That's a good question. I guess I would probably say that politically it's kind of what I expected. Schedule-wise, from that perspective, it's probably very different. 

Crann:  In terms of your workload or where you need to be all day, that sort of thing?

Daudt:  I had some experience as a county commissioner for the last 6 years. When I jumped into that role, I knew that, or I found out real quickly that there was a lot of information I didn't know about that position. And I knew coming into this that a state legislator deals with a lot more than anyone can be expected to know on day one. So the learning curve is extremely steep, and just kind of wrapping your mind around all of that, it takes some time.

Crann:  When it comes to getting to know the other lawmakers, especially Democrats, do you think there's enough opportunity there to actually get to know each other, because the thinking goes, when you do, it's easier to make deals, there's less demonizing of the other side. What's the climate like for that right now?

Daudt:  Obviously I feel like I know the members of my own caucus better than some of the members of the Democrat party, but there are opportunities. In fact, last night, we had the Ranger party. I actually wasn't able to make it there. I had another commitment, but it's always kind of a fun event, from what I hear in St. Paul, and it's a bipartisan thing. And everybody goes, and it's really put on by the members of the Range delegation. And this year, of course, that's a bipartisan group. They talk about it being a fun event and a time really to put the politics aside and just enjoy each others company and get to know each other as people. So there have been some opportunities for that.

Crann:  What about personal workload? Were you able to actually keep your civilian job, as it were? You talked about wanting to do that.

Daudt:  Right. I did actually keep my other job, and obviously as many know, the salary of a legislator doesn't necessarily permit you to live on that as your sole source of income. So I do have my other job. And I actually have been working for the most part a couple of days a week while we're still in session, evenings, sometimes a couple evenings during the week, and then on Fridays. So it makes for a long week, but they've actually been very flexible at times when we've needed to be in session late. We've had a couple of night where we've already been in session until 2:30 or after in the morning. So they've been flexible to allow me to come in later, or they've covered for me if I haven't been able to make it in on an evening. So it's been okay. 

Crann:  There might be a few more evenings like that in your future, too, late evenings.

Daudt:  I think so. They talked about there might be some late nights and long schedules as we pass the omnibus bills and as we were in the process working them out in conference committee that there might be some downtime. So we're right now just kind of entering into that conference committee time. And I am on one conference committee for the omnibus bills, the Higher Education omnibus conference committee, so we'll see how that works out. But as we get towards the end of the session, it's my understanding we're going to be here pretty much around the clock in session. 

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)