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Commissioner pay raise fight leads to Dayton-DFLer blowup

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Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton talks to the media during a news conference in St. Paul, Minn., Feb. 12, 2015.
Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune via AP

Updated 8 p.m. | Posted 4:29 p.m.

In sometimes stunning language, Gov. Mark Dayton Thursday blasted fellow Democrats in the Senate for suspending planned pay raises for his commissioners and said he no longer trusts DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.

"Now I know how President Obama feels. I'm confronted with two hostile bodies of the Legislature," Dayton told reporters hours after the state Senate voted overwhelmingly to put the brakes on the big salary increases to commissioners that Dayton had ordered. 

Dayton said he trusted Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt but would no longer deal with Bakk without someone else in room.

Dayton said he believes the Senate leader from Cook "connives behind my back."

Dayton met with eight Senate Democrats this afternoon for a private talk. Bakk was not in the meeting.

In a text message responding to Dayton's criticism, Bakk wrote, "My only comment is this is not a kid's sandbox." 

Senators voted 63-2 on Thursday to suspend the pay hikes Dayton granted to 26 commissioners and agency heads in January. 

The measure was attached to a stopgap spending bill for the Natural Resources and Health and Human Services departments as well as the Minnesota Zoo. 

As the Senate began debate, Bakk proposed the amendment to delay salary increases for all commissioners until July 1. 

He said it would give lawmakers more time to review the governor's recent approval of those wages. Bakk stressed that he was not trying to challenge the governor's authority.

"I don't bring this in any way to make the administration think that members of the Legislature want to meddle in his departments setting pay for people," he said. "But I do think that we have an oversight responsibility to make sure that taxpayers' dollars are being spent as wisely as possible."

Bakk said the increases, totaling about $800,000, are most likely warranted, given the absence of raises for several years but added that he wanted to learn more about the study that Dayton had done to help him decide the increase for each commissioner. 

"We may find out that the governor's actions are well substantiated by the study, and it may well be that by the end of session we'll be comfortable with where the governor is at," he said.

Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully for a permanent repeal of the governor's authority to make salary increases, which the Legislature granted in 2013.

GOP Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville said those pay decisions should again be made by the Legislature.  

"I don't know why anybody in this body would not want to reassert our legislative authority and make sure that the governor can't continue to behave this way or that these ridiculous salary increases go back into effect in July," Thompson said.

Republicans in the Minnesota House are also trying to roll back the governor's authority. They have a committee hearing scheduled next week on a bill that would again make pay raises a legislative decision.

Earlier in the week, the House Ways and Means committee altered its version of that same emergency funding bill to subtract the amount of salary increases going to three commissioners.   

Dayton has repeatedly defended his action on the salary increases as proper, long overdue and necessary to keep top talent in state government. 

The full House has not acted on the emergency funding bill. It's not clear whether GOP leaders will move ahead with their version or the Senate measure.

  This is not the first time Dayton and Bakk have tangled.   Last year, the governor criticized Bakk after Bakk bottled up a tax cut bill over a disagreement involving the new Senate Office Building.   But it's odd for internal party squabbles to become public. 

Now, Senate Democrats have to figure out a way to work with a governor from their own party. What complicates things is that every seat in the Legislature is on the ballot in 2016 and they're dealing with a governor who says he's never going to run for office again.

  Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, said Bakk and Dayton need to resolve their issues.

  "I definitely think they have to work on that trust because it will make things more difficult if that trust level isn't fixed," she said. "I don't think either one of them really wants that."

Daudt sidestepped questions on whether the DFL disagreements could harm future budget negotiations. He said he plans to speak with Dayton and Bakk about how to pass the emergency spending bill.

  A big question is whether Daudt will have those talks with Dayton and Bakk in the same room.