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Dayton, Daudt scuttle special session talks in public feud

Minnesota officials abandoned their plans for a special session to address health care costs Friday after a final attempt at negotiating a deal ended in anger, leaving more than 120,000 residents left on their own to cover massive premium increases at the start of the year.

Those rate hikes have been the subject of months of private negotiations between Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other legislative leaders. But Friday’s meeting was held in the public eye, where Dayton and Daudt traded barbs and blamed each other for the standstill for 15 minutes before declaring the effort dead until the Legislature returns Jan. 3.

The blowup also means that $1 billion in public construction projects and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief — both left unfinished from the 2016 legislative session — won’t be passed. The two bills had been looped into possible special session talks.

“It’s a shared failure,” Dayton said of the scuttled special session. “It’s bad for Minnesota, there’s no doubt about it.”

The premium hikes hit just a small slice of Minnesota — just 5 percent buy coverage through the individual market, and many of those shoppers qualify for federal help based on income requirements. But the issue exploded ahead of the November election, when it played prominently in Republicans’ successful campaign to hold the House and regain Senate control.

Registration for individual market plans began Nov. 1 and will continue through January.

Dayton proposed a premium rebate nearly two months ago that would tap part of a budget surplus to buy down some of the premium hikes. He and legislative leaders appeared close to a deal earlier this month, penciling in a special session just before Christmas.

But that deal dissolved in a final week of fruitless back and forth, with Dayton singling out Daudt’s trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a legislative conference this week while the speaker accused the governor of purposefully scuttling a deal. Friday’s public meeting — a rarity at the Capitol, where high-level negotiations typically take place in private — repeated those talking points before the two politicians gave up and left.

Daudt said the governor’s plan needed to also address questions of health care access given the stringent enrollment caps Minnesota insurers have placed on their plans. He said he and an incoming Senate Republican majority would queue up a fix when the legislative session begins Jan. 3.

“We’re going to put something in place the first week of session … and the governor is going to sign it,” Daudt said “This is a little setback for Minnesotans right now.”

Eyeing a session in which he’d square off with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, Dayton predicted it would be “a very difficult one.”

Friday morning, following the flurry of letters they distributed to each other and the press Thursday, Daudt and Dayton spoke to reporters Friday morning to direct accusations at one another.

Daudt, who raced back from the leadership conference in the Virgin Islands late Thursday, said he placed a call to Dayton on Friday morning but got tossed into voicemail.

He then met with reporters and pinned full responsibility on Dayton for the apparent failure to arrive at an agreement that would have revived a vetoed tax bill and failed bonding bill from the 2016 session, as well as health insurance premium relief.

Daudt accused the governor of intentionally bollixing the special session and accused Dayton of blaming others for his own failure. “I want him to stand here and tell Minnesotans, ‘I am sorry,’” Daudt said.

Daudt said he believes Dayton is bowing to pressure from labor interests, which Daudt said do not want a special session because it might result in tax cuts. Asked where he got that information, he replied, “From some of my friends on the other side of the aisle. It’s more than a rumor.”

In a press conference with outstate reporters Friday, Dayton struck a more measured tone, but nonetheless blamed House Republicans for the session’s potential failure. He parroted nearly word-for-word Daudt’s accusation against Dayton. Each said that the other had added new measures to the bonding and tax bills, rendering a deal impossible.

“I concluded that the Republicans didn’t want a bill and they wanted to make an offer that they knew I would have to refuse,” Dayton said.

The governor had pushed legislative leaders this week to agree to an agenda by Thursday in hopes of holding a special session on Tuesday. He gave caucus leaders until 5 p.m. Thursday to agree to a special session that included the bonding and tax bills.

The deadline came and went without any movement.

Staff writer Kevin Featherly contributed to this report.

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