Defund the Legislature? 'See you in court,' Daudt tells Dayton

Kurt Daudt
In this Nov. 9, 2016 photo, Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt speaks to the media at the state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP 2016

Updated: 3:36 p.m. | Posted: 12:55 p.m.

GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt made it clear Friday that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's move to eliminate the Legislature's funding in retaliation over Republican maneuvering is headed for a legal fight.

Dayton and Daudt made back-to-back appearances on MPR News just before leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to authorize spending on a private attorney.

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"See you in court, governor," Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said at the end of his interview.

When a lawsuit is filed, taxpayer money will be used to pay the Legislature's lawyers and the governor's defense, which would likely be handled by the attorney general.

Legislative leaders hired Minneapolis law firm Kelley, Wolter & Scott to handle their expected suit against Dayton.

Daudt said attorney Doug Kelley offered to take the case for half his hourly rate of $650. He said taxpayer money would be used to pay the legal fees.

The fight stems from Dayton's line-item veto of all funding to run the House and Senate the next two years. The governor said he felt betrayed by a provision in the same bill that would have wiped out money for his Department of Revenue unless he consented to a tax-cut package, which he did.

"If the governor feels like what we did to him was wrong, he missed his opportunity already. He should have vetoed those bills. That was his constitutional right to veto those bills and call us back to fix that," Daudt said. "He chose not to do that. He signed them and then is punitively trying to eliminate the Legislature."

Daudt said the governor could avoid a lawsuit by rescinding his vetoes.

"I know that people in my district aren't happy with the behavior with the governor right now," Daudt said. "I wonder if the governor doesn't regret what he's doing. But ultimately, he's chosen to take this course."

Dayton said he is trying to set the stage for new negotiations over a special session where the Legislature's funding could be restored and he could try to undo some of the items he didn't like in the signed bills.

"I don't want to ultimately defund the Legislature, the House and the Senate," Dayton said, adding, "I want to get their attention and hopefully get the attention of Minnesotans focused on why these measures would be so detrimental to the future of our state."

The governor said he thinks the tax bill is unsustainable because business breaks will grow over time. He's also upset over a freeze in cigarette taxes, which were due to rise, and a cut in the rate assessed on premium cigars, which was slashed.

On policy, Dayton wants to revisit changes in the teacher licensure system and strip out a new law that strictly bars issuance of driver's licenses to immigrants living in the country without proper documentation.

While Dayton pointed earlier in the week to the Department of Revenue funding trigger in a state government finance bill, he downplayed that provision's role in striking down the operating budget of the Legislature.

Any litigation, he said, will be sparked by lawmakers, not him. He said his preference is to get back to the bargaining table.

"I'm not doing this to occupy my summer months; I'm not doing it to retaliate against some petty maneuver the Legislature pulled at the end of the session," Dayton said. "I'm doing this because I think this is what's right for Minnesota, and it's what I base my decision on."

Daudt said the items Dayton wants to hash over were part of hard-fought compromises on both sides.

"You know he agreed to all of those provisions, every single one of them — personally, not through staff," Daudt said. "Things were traded away or things were agreed to, either we gave him things or we agreed not to move other things forward if he were to give us these provisions."

He added, "We just think it's not right that after he made an agreement now to try to use this sort of leverage and renegotiate that. Frankly, it's just wrong and someone needs to stand up to the governor and hold him accountable and we're going to do that."

Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said he met privately with the governor this week and tried to find a "a possible off-ramp" to avoid the looming legal fight. But Gazelka said he couldn't find one.

"In the end it really left us no choice but to move forward with this step for legal action. This is not a place we want to be," Gazelka said. "But for us, this is not an issue of Democrats vs. Republicans, but the governor versus the House and Senate."

DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman accused GOP leaders of using the same tactics that they're now criticizing the governor for using. Hortman also argued that hiring a lawyer was premature. She said talking to the governor would be the quicker and cheaper approach.

"I think Minnesotans will be disappointed to see their hard-earned taxpayer dollars spent on litigation when no attempt has been made to reach an agreement short of litigation."

House and Senate leaders were unsure what their next legal move might be. They say money set aside in reserve accounts will cover only a couple months of operating expenses after their funding dries up on July 1.