House Speaker Kurt Daudt does not want to take credit for various infighting episodes between Democrats last session. Most memorably, Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk had a falling out early in the session, and, toward its end, Bakk’s caucus in the Senate had fractious moments over controversial policy.
Daudt didn’t lay any traps though.
“Really, it had to do with the issues they were pushing,” Daudt said. “That’s why Dayton and Bakk were fighting.”
The underlying tension grew out of regional and philosophical differences, according to Daudt, who said urban liberals wanted a much different outcome than their rural DFL partners. There was no such friction on the GOP side, and Daudt said his caucus lived up to its pledge to “represent all of Minnesota.”
He hopes the same unity will be on display next year and, after session, as his majority hits the road to defend its House control in the 2016 election. Daudt spoke to Capitol Report about a number of issues from last session, the next, and his hopes for the elections just more than a year from now.
Capitol Report: With some hindsight, what’s your overall view of the 2015 session?
Daudt: I think it was a successful session for us. We showed some real leadership and got some really good things done. We also showed real fiscal restraint. I think we had the third-lowest spending increase in 50 years. Where we did spend money we spent it in places where we wanted to. Probably the issue I’m proudest of is the money we put into long-term care facilities … which means we’re going to take better care of our loved ones. And for our rural communities, where long-term care is the biggest employer in town, they’re going to be able to take better care of their employees.
On education, the governor obviously wanted to force universal pre-K on everyone in the state, regardless of the fact school districts were saying, “No, we don’t want that.” We took the money the governor wanted to spend it on that and forced him to put it onto the formula, which is local control. School districts … will get an extra percent each year for the biennium because of Republicans, and in that, I think we’re breaking stereotypes.
CR: There’s no sign of any progress since session ended on taxes or transportation. Are you optimistic about either at this point?
Daudt: I think there has been progress. What needed to happen is Democrats needed to realize that we don’t need to enact the largest gas tax increase in state history. And I think they’ve come to that realization. I think we’re set to make — it could, now, be a very short session. We could deal with that issue very, very quickly. Nobody’s even talking about a gas tax anymore. It’s not that I’m philosophically against it. It’s just not the right thing to do.
It’s a very difficult argument to make to the public that we need to raise a new tax to pay for it. They failed in their effort as well, in the common-sense argument. If they literally believe revenues are going to decline in the future because of more efficient vehicles, and hybrid vehicles, that’s the reason we need a new revenue source. And then their proposal for new revenue is to raise the gas tax. It doesn’t make any sense.
CR: Are you still interested in pushing for the business property tax breaks that got criticism from Democrats last year?
Daudt: I wouldn’t call it “tax breaks,” I would call it freezing the inflator on business property taxes. And I’m for freezing the inflator on every tax, including the cigarette tax. This is what happens when Democrats are in the majority. They put new taxes in place and then they put an automatic inflator on them, so they go up, and up, and up and up. I know the narrative the Democrats are trying to sell, that we’re the ones sticking up for the billionaires, and they’re sticking up for Minnesotans.
The state shouldn’t be in the property tax business. That’s a mechanism to collect local property taxes. There’s only two segments of property we collect tax on at the state, commercial properties and … cabins, lake homes. The state should get out of the property tax business. Obviously, somebody saw that as a revenue source and enacted it. But it does have the potential to make our businesses not competitive.
CR: The budget surplus is growing by the day. What should be done with that when you go into session in 2016?
Daudt: There’s two options. We could spend that money, or return it to the people that sent it in. We’re going to be pushing for a balanced approach of both. When I say spending, I don’t mean “spending.” I mean investing in roads and bridges. What we need to do is find that happy medium where our expenditures match our revenues. A surplus isn’t any better than a deficit. In a deficit, we’re not collecting enough, and in a surplus we’re collecting too much.
Somehow in St. Paul, everybody celebrates when we have surpluses … now we can spend all this much money. When we set our budget, a year prior, we … talked about it, we debated it, we negotiated it, we passed it. We didn’t think we needed to spend it a year ago, why do we need to spend it now.
CR: Does Minnesota need a soccer stadium?
Daudt: I don’t believe they need a publicly funded stadium. If an ownership group wants to fund a stadium, and invest in that, that’s great. That’s fantastic. I hope they do it.
CR: There’s been discussion about law changes that would involve guns next year. Is that something you want to see happen?
Daudt: I don’t think so. I think we made the adjustments to the laws that were our priorities last year. I don’t think we need to readdress anything next year.
CR: On bonding, that’s a sure thing next year. What does a good bonding bill look like to you?
Daudt: We’ll look to keep a bill under the 10-year average, so under that $1 billion range. I would also look for a bill that’s heavy on regional or infrastructure type projects. I’d like to stay away from the ticky-tack crap people see as wasteful spending. I’d love to have a bill that had broad, broad bipartisan support. Literally, 100, or 110, or 120 votes in the House. It’s going to take some work to get there.
CR: The House and Senate will both be on the Minnesota ballot next year, as will a presidential election. How does that shape up for the Republican majority?
Daudt: Democrats typically outspend us in election years. Actually, not typically. They always outspend us. Usually it’s two-to-one, sometimes higher. The reason is, 70 percent of their money comes from labor unions. We don’t have that funding source. My hope is they can’t just buy the election. Without a statewide [Minnesota] election, all that money is going to be focused on the House, with some on the Senate.
CR: You identified yourself with Scott Walker’s presidential campaign. Do you have an idea of what didn’t work there? And who do you want to win now?
Daudt: I think it was more the mechanics of the campaign than anything else. They were raising a lot of money and burning through money. He didn’t do as well in the debates as he could have. But … somebody who can talk well on TV isn’t necessarily going to be your best president. But unfortunately that’s kind of how we make our decisions.
I’m excited about a lot of the people on the Republican side who are running, and I think Minnesotans are as well. I’ve heard through the grapevine Democrats in Minnesota are worried about an “enthusiasm gap” because their base is not going to be excited to get out and vote. It’ll be interesting to watch nonetheless.