“Cordial” ceased to be the adjective of choice as governor and Legislature battled through the final week of session
With a liberal Democrat in the governor’s office and a young crowd of firebrand conservatives in control of the state Legislature, a collision was bound to occur sooner or later.
In the past week, relations between the Dayton administration and House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch — described by both sides as cordial in the early going — have been dashed on the rocks over the impending impasse on how to solve the $5 billion budget deficit by the May 23 constitutional adjournment date.
“Up until recently, it’s been amazing how civil it’s been,” one longtime DFL lobbyist said. “I think Dayton has a lot to do with that — and maybe the temperament of Koch and Zellers, too. They’ve been civil. I think the next several chapters won’t be so civil.”
As the last week of the regular legislative session unfolded, the major budget bills moved swiftly beginning on Tuesday. Over the previous weekend, a cascade of conference agreements were posted online, giving the appearance that Republicans were readying a platform for negotiations with Dayton during the last days of the session.
But the tenor of the budget debate was sullied by the political tumult that opened the week.
One game-changer came on Monday, when Dayton proposed to reduce the tax increase in his budget plan from $3.35 billion to $1.8 billion and increase spending cuts to the same figure. He then called on Republicans to meet him at this halfway point. The move ratcheted up calls for GOP legislators to compromise. During an hourlong Tuesday interview on Minnesota Public Radio, Dayton called the Republicans “intransigent.”
The mood between the two sides soured further when Dayton said on MPR that he regretted signing the agriculture budget bill on April 15. Dayton said he had been fooled by Republicans into thinking that agreement closed the books on the Department of Agriculture, only to find additional cuts to the agency lurking in the state government finance bill.
In response to Dayton’s comments on the agriculture bill, Republicans turned up the rhetoric, repeatedly using the word “erratic” to describe Dayton’s signals on the budget. That word was frequently used by Republicans in the 2010 campaign in an effort to capitalize on Dayton’s widely derided decision as a U.S. senator to close his Washington office over concerns about an alleged terrorist threat.
The mood soured further when House Republicans on the floor offered Dayton’s revised budget proposal as a minority report. The move seemed to galvanize DFLers in the Legislature, who had been stuck in the back eddies for much of the session. After voting with Republicans to shoot down Dayton’s budget proposal earlier this session (a stance Dayton encouraged them to take at the time), all DFLers except Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, voted for the bill.
The DFL lobbyist said the minority-report vote appeared to backfire on Republicans by providing evidence of unity between Dayton and the minority caucuses in the Legislature. “That was a mistake on the Republicans’ part,” the lobbyist contended, “because the governor was out there fighting the good fight, and there weren’t a lot of troops behind him [before the vote on the minority report].”
But a GOP lobbyist disagreed, noting that the ploy did put House DFLers on the record voting for an income tax increase, which will be useful fodder for Republicans in 2012 campaigns. “Either they’re supporting tax increases or they’re not supporting the governor,” the lobbyist said. “I don’t know if it was misplayed, because at the end [Republicans] can say they got all these DFLers voting for tax increases.”
While Dayton’s newfound backup among DFL legislators gave him a symbolic affirmation, it is Dayton himself who wields the greatest amount of power in pushing the DFL agenda. And in a sign that the governor is in no mood for détente, Deputy Minority Leader Geoff Michel told MPR that Dayton told GOP leaders that he will hold his ground against the Republicans’ proposed budget for the foreseeable future.
“What he said to us today, among other things, is that he would hold out until 2012 for a tax increase,” Michel said.
The hard feelings between the two sides were exacerbated by a series of mini-filibusters that DFLers undertook last week as both chambers labored to pass their budget conference reports. DFLers relentlessly debated conference reports on Tuesday and Wednesday, a move that produced marathon sessions stretching through the night on both days. They abruptly stopped the delays after midnight passed on Wednesday, however, thus making clear that the object of the exercise was to assure that the three-day window in which Dayton must act on the bills would not expire until the end of adjournment day Monday.
“They were just trying to take the option away from the Republicans to have the bills vetoed and then throw something back,” the Republican lobbyist noted.
Dayton is at an advantage in seeing the clock run out on the session, because only he can decide when to call legislators back to St. Paul for a special session.
The days of filibustering irked Republican leaders. They lambasted some of the bizarre moments of the filibuster, such as discussions about King Tut and the legendary fielding error by Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series.
“Now, the minorities are using pitiful stall tactics on the floor,” Koch said at a news conference. “While we’re trying to discuss a budget, we have members of the Senate embarrassingly speaking about King Tut exhibits … and naming dinosaurs.”
Koch expressed frustration that Dayton’s commissioners didn’t have authority to negotiate terms of the budget bills with chairs of legislative budget committees. Koch and Zellers on Monday night sent a letter to Dayton in which they said committee chairs would be contacting his commissioners to discuss the budget.
On Wednesday Koch said Dayton still wasn’t willing to make progress on the budget. Relations appeared to worsen further after Koch and Zellers claimed not to know that a meeting was being scheduled for Dayton to appear before a joint meeting of the GOP caucuses. They lashed out at reports of the meeting, which they said Dayton had announced without consulting them.
“He’s going to the press now…to seem as though he’s actually working to get something solved here and making no effort. While I am disappointed in the DFL minority, it’s hard to have words to say how I feel about the governor’s leadership, or lack thereof, on this issue,” Koch said.
Dayton’s staff then released a series of email messages between House and Senate GOP staff and the governor’s office trying to finalize a time for meeting.
The most abrasive public exchange came on Wednesday in the Senate. After Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, spoke about the historical view of mentally ill or impaired people as “idiots” and “imbeciles,” Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, took to Twitter and said that Goodwin was using the terms to describe the mentally ill. Senate GOP Communications Director Michael Brodkorb re-tweeted Hoffman’s tweet.
Goodwin threatened an ethics complaint and asked for an apology. Hoffman declined, saying instead that she hoped to speak to Goodwin about Hoffman’s own experiences as a nurse.
After Dayton’s hourlong meeting with the combined GOP caucuses on Thursday afternoon, both sides emerged sounding more civil and more subdued than in the days preceding. By all accounts the meeting proceeded without confrontation. But no one went as far as to suggest that it produced any sign of progress on a budget deal.