Dayton, Bakk make up, attack Republicans on transportation

Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Tom Bakk
Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk made their first public appearance Thursday since last month's tension. At one point, Bakk jokingly put his arm around Dayton to give reporters and photographers a "photo op."
Tom Scheck | MPR News

Gov. Mark Dayton didn't mince words Thursday when it came to the House Republican transportation plan, calling it "fiction."

"All we get from House Republicans and even Senate Republicans is whack at this and whack at that, and rant about this and rant about that," Dayton told reporters. "There's nothing coming forward except a slice of the surplus and a double dose of make-believe."

While it wasn't surprising to hear Dayton go after the GOP, it was Dayton's partner at the podium that made the press conference intriguing. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk stood by Dayton for the first time since the governor, enraged over the Senate's move to block pay raises for his commissioners, ripped Bakk on Feb. 12 as a "back stabber" who could no longer be trusted.

There was no talk of back-stabbing Thursday. The two DFLers appear to have patched up their differences to launch a unified effort to put House Republicans on the spot over transportation funding. Democrats, they said, will push a 10-year plan to fix Minnesota's roads, bridges and transit while the GOP has no realistic plan.

Dayton said House Republicans detail how they'll pay to fix the state's long-term transportation problems. He's proposed a 10-year, $6 billion plan that increases the wholesale tax on gasoline and raises vehicle registration fees to pay for road and bridge projects. He also wants a half-cent sales tax increase in the metro area to pay for transit projects.

"I urge the House to step up," Dayton said. "Quit whacking at the pinata of my proposal and come forward with your own."

In January, House Republicans proposed using a portion of the state's budget surplus and money already in the Transportation Department budget to spend about $750 million for road and bridge projects over the next four years.

Bakk, however, said Senate Democrats will not support using surplus money to pay for transportation projects and that roads and bridges should not have to compete for dollars with education and health care.

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said last week that the expanding budget surplus should mean a gas tax hike is off the table. After Dayton's Thursday news conference, House Transportation Chair Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said he plans to release the details of the House GOP proposal this month.

Kelly declined to say how much it will spend but said it will likely include money from the surplus, some borrowing and dedicating existing tax revenues from auto parts, rental cars and leased vehicles.

"These are real dollars," Kelly said. "This does mean investment into transportation and it does not mean a tax increase."

Dayton and Bakk's message may also have been aimed at Democrats.

Several House DFLers have said the larger budget surplus makes it tougher to support a gas tax hike. Even DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen isn't ruling out using the surplus for transportation.

"The Senate and governor clearly have put out a plan that is going to accomplish a long-term solution," he said. "But we are also going to look at other ideas."

Thissen said if Republicans propose a comprehensive plan that focuses on the whole state, House Democrats will put up nearly half of the support needed to pass the bill.

While the policy path is uncertain, Dayton and Bakk made it a point to show that they've moved on from last month's blowup. When asked about their relationship Thursday, Bakk rushed up and jokingly put his arm around the governor.

"Let's do a photo op for them. We're doing just fine," Bakk said to Dayton. "We're going to talk budget targets either later this week or early next week so we're doing fine."