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Question of the day: How can Minnesota’s legislative session end well?

Today’s events illustrate the ongoing divide at the Capitol: the governor’s criticism of “Fantasy Island” thinking, angry chants from union workers and continuing GOP committee work on an all-cuts budget.

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton

The governor spoke softly but resolutely this morning. Later, angry chants filled the Capitol. And all the while, Republican-led committees continued to grind through the process of putting together their all-cuts budget, which include a number of provisions that are sure to provoke even more angry chants.

All of this — the chants, the governor’s resolve, the Republicans moving ahead with their agenda — underscored the one big question that hangs over this session: How can this end well?

Start with Gov. Mark Dayton. At a morning news event, he continued to talk hopefully about finding compromise with a Legislature that is currently putting together a budget that undercuts everything Dayton has stood for:

Slashes to Local Government Aid to the big cities. An end to integration funding for schools. Huge cuts to higher education. Large cuts to the number of public employees, not to mention to their wages, benefits and rights to bargain collectively.

Despite it all, he talked about how he and Republican legislative leaders, just this morning, had met for breakfast. It was, as always, cordial.

Dayton stresses willingness to work things out
He said he again talked to them about the “bifurcation”of the voters in November.

“They elected me, and they elected you,” he said. “The overriding view of the public is that they want us to work it out. I think there is a willingness to work it out.”

Dayton, to date at least, remains so different from his predecessor.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty loved to hold up a pen that he called his “taxpayer protection plan” — his veto pen.

Pawlenty set a state record for vetoes, 299 in his eight years in office. At the end of his second term, he went so far as to give the state’s Historical Society a very large “veto” pen as a symbol of his time in office.

Dayton is making no threats, although he did say today that Republicans can’t operate from “Fantasy Island” when putting together their budget.

“Fantasy Island” thinking?

Dayton pointed to $300 million in waivers Republicans seem to think they can receive from Washington regarding Human Services budgeting.

Can’t happen, Dayton said.

He also made it clear, in soft tones, that he will oppose efforts to divert public school integration dollars to other areas.

He said the Republican legislators need to apply “fiscal notes” to their budget plans.

“They are mutually agreed-upon reality checks,” he said of the fiscal notes, which are provided by the Minnesota Management and Budget office and show the financial impact of various decisions.

There can be legitimate policy disagreements, Dayton said. But in the end, there must be a willingness on both sides to compromise.

“We have 65 days left,” he said, again expressing confidence that cool, compromising heads can prevail. 

Eliot Seide
MinnPost/Bill Kelley
Eliot Seide

Angry workers fill Capitol Rotunda
An hour after he was done speaking, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees held a massive pep rally in the Capitol Rotunda. As many as 1,500 AFSCME workers roared in response to their leader, Eliot Seide.

“Who does the work?” yelled Seide.

“We do!” the workers yelled back.

“Cut back!” yelled Seide.

“Fight back!” the workers responded.

“Who are we?” yelled Seide.

“AFSCME!” was the response.

Over and over again they chanted.

“There is a budget fix!” yelled Seide.

“Tax the rich!” the workers shouted

“This isn’t just a fight for public workers,” Seide said. “This is a fight for the middle class.”

Seide warned the workers that Republicans, who he continually referred to as “a bunch of cheap labor conservatives” are attempting to pit public workers against workers in the private sector.

“They want public and private workers fighting with each other to keep us distracted,” Seide said.

This rally, he vowed, is just the beginning.

He urged public workers to “stand up straight, shoulders back” and proudly proclaim they are public workers.

“Who does the work?”

“We do!” they shouted

Several AFSCME employees followed Seide to the speakers’ platform. There were constant references to Republican leadership in Minnesota trying “to bring Madison to St. Paul.”

Mike Lindholt, a burly snowplow driver, specifically pointed out Rep. Keith Downey, the Edina Republican who has come up with a large number of “reform” bills that would cut the state workforce by as much as 15 percent and also cut wages and benefits.

Downey, at one point, made the observation that the Legislature must “strangle the beast,” a reference to what he believes is the unsustainable size of state government.

“He says we’re beasts,” said Lindholt. “Here we are. Come see us. We are not beasts!”

The crowd roared.

Throughout the rally, the speakers praised Dayton, who was not present.

Rep. Greg Davids
Rep. Greg Davids

A perplexed Republican committee chair
Rep. Greg Davids, however, was present. He is the head of the House Taxes Committee.

Davids left the rally shaking his head.

“I don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Davids said.

What’s hard to understand?

“Tax the rich,” he said. “What’s the thought process behind destroying jobs?”

It was suggested to Davids that part of the anger seems to be efforts to cut into collective bargaining rights.

Davids is a rare Republican. He doesn’t always speak in lockstep with his caucus. He said he, too, is perplexed by the number of bills that are being processed that seem to provoke union anger.

“A waste of time,” he said of those bills. “He [the governor] is just going to veto them.”

Instead of working on such bills, Davids said Republicans should be focused entirely on bottom-line budget issues.

“That’s going to be difficult enough,” he said.

But then he went back to some of the union chants, especially “tax the rich.”

He started talking about the Bible and then the Ten Commandments. He said he recently met with union leaders and suggested to them that “tax the rich” runs roughshod over the 10th  Commandment.

“Thou shalt not covet,” he said. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his donkey or his job or his house in the Hamptons. That’s what it means to me.”

How does this end well?

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.