Outmaneuvered: How Dayton's Minnesota priorities were sunk

Governor Dayton talks about 2015 session
Gov. Mark Dayton, with Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, talked about the 2015 legislative session on May 19 in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

In early May, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Gov. Mark Dayton went fishing. It seemed like a sign they'd work together to finish the legislative session.

Bakk joked prior to the Governor's Fishing Opener that he'd make sure Dayton wore a life jacket because "if he falls overboard, the speaker and I don't want to have to explain what happened."

A week later, Daudt and Bakk decided to throw Dayton over the side and pass a budget without him.

The governor now finds himself in a weakened position after he had to back off many of his priorities while Republicans prevailed on many of theirs. He's been left pleading with fellow Democrats to vote for budget bills that even he admits include bad policy. A special session to finish that work is set for 10 a.m. Friday.

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"This is about whether people are willing to vote to continue government in Minnesota in continuity or whether they're going to vote to disrupt it further," Dayton said. "That to me is what these votes on these bills are about. It's not about these particular measures."

Since the end of the legislative session on May 18, Dayton has drawn several negotiating lines and been forced to retreat from nearly all of them. It's left some from his own party stunned.

"I have never seen a governor that has been more disrespected," said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

House Republicans and even leaders in her own DFL Party repeatedly ignored Dayton's demands, she said, adding that's different from how the Legislature acted under other governors.

"When Tim Pawlenty said he wanted something taken out of a bill, we took it out of the bill because we didn't want to risk a veto," Pappas said of Dayton's Republican predecessor.

Dayton made similar veto threats but either backed down or didn't follow through.

He signed a public safety and judiciary bill despite threatening a veto over gun silencers. He vetoed the education budget bill because he wanted more money for schools and universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds.

He got $125 million more for schools but dropped his universal pre-K plan even though he said it was his top priority. He also dropped a threat not to call a special session if lawmakers didn't back off changes to the state auditor's responsibilities.

Dayton did the best he could in negotiations but should have held firm on some environmental policies, said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

"If you have a little kid, if you give them everything they want or a lot of what they want, they learn to keep demanding more," Marty said. "It's not a winning strategy to do that. I think you just have to learn to say no."

Marty and Pappas say Dayton was hamstrung by Bakk, a fellow Democrat, whom they say agreed to trade bad policy in exchange for more money in budget bills.

Bakk's relationship with Dayton has been strained. Earlier this year, Dayton called him a backstabber for undermining the governor's plan to raise the salaries of his commissioners. Earlier this week when a reporter asked him if he was rolled by the Legislature, Dayton suggested both Bakk and Daudt were working against him.

"I won some and I lost some. When you get to the point where leaders in both sides, House and Senate, conspire against me, it's hard," Dayton said. "I can't track everything that's said there and goes on there and when some of it isn't even disclosed to me or to anybody else after the deeds have been done.

"Was I rolled? I think I was circumvented, certainly."

Bakk disputes Dayton's characterization, saying he did the best he could to pass his agenda. He said he bypassed the governor on the budget in the session's closing days because the Legislature had a constitutional deadline to meet.

He also said the governor now knows something that many in his caucus still may not know: House Republicans are dug in on spending.

"The governor and I can't make them spend money," said Bakk, DFL-Cook. "If they refuse, they refuse. As more caucus members become aware of how difficult this is, I think they'll come to understand that this is just a near impossible situation we're in."

Dayton and his staff say he did win some key policy items. They cite the increased education funding, a measure that requires farmers to leave buffer strips to prevent pesticide runoff into lakes and streams and a public works construction bill.

Several Democrats, including Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, say Dayton did as well as he could, given that thousands of state workers faced layoffs if a partial government shutdown occurred on July 1.

"The governor is appropriately focused on the 9,400 state employees who need certainty in their lives, and I think his priority has always been since he's been elected investing in education," Hortman said. "The other issues that we've been going back and forth on do not rise to the level of making 9,400 people wonder how they're going to pay their July mortgage."

House Republicans have been careful not to gloat too much about how they fared this session for fear that it could scuttle an already fragile budget deal. But Rep. Pat Garofalo said Republicans held firm on issues that mattered to them and forged alliances with rural Democrats on other issues.

"There was a greater focus on coalitions involving Greater Minnesota," said Garofalo, R-Farmington. It's not a matter of Republican-Democrat. This was Greater Minnesota being represented versus the metro area."

Other Republicans say they're shocked Dayton vetoed the three budget bills and aren't happy with the increased spending or changes in the agriculture and environment bill. Dayton overstepped his authority by negotiating every detail in the vetoed bills, said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

"The Legislature puts together their proposals in legislative form, passes them and sends them to the governor for his approval and disapproval," he said. "The level to which he has wanted to micromanage and control these bills and by extension the Legislature through this process is very very troubling."

But in the past few weeks, Dayton left the negotiations to Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and his chief of staff. Bakk dropped out of talks after Dayton's vetoes.

Daudt stood up to both Dayton and Bakk and won, said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.

"You'll notice that when he put lines in the sand they didn't get washed away," Davids said. "I'm very proud of the job he did as speaker."

Neither Daudt nor Dayton won a battle over transportation funding. Dayton wanted to raise the tax on gasoline while Daudt wanted to borrow money and dedicate existing resources to improving roads and bridges. Daudt also didn't get a big tax cut Republicans favored.

But the budget deal leaves about $800 million unspent, and Republicans are sure to try again next year.