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Dayton’s veto of four ‘tort reform’ bills comes with stinging GOP criticism

“These were laughably characterized as jobs bills,” the governor said. “Calling a crow a swan doesn’t make it one.”

Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t just veto four “tort-reform” bills passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature this morning. He shredded the bills and GOP leadership.

“These were laughably characterized as jobs bills,” Dayton said.  “Calling a crow a swan doesn’t make it one.”

The changes, Dayton said, would not create a single job, would not help Minnesotans and would only “pad the bottom lines of mostly out-of-state insurance companies.”

At the briefing, Dayton held up a copy of a brochure, “ALEC Boot Camp,” produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is an ultra-conservative organization funded by large corporations.  ALEC membership includes substantial numbers of legislators from around the country, but it’s often unclear as to just who is a member.

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Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers, for example, said that at one time he was a member but he’s not sure if he re-upped his membership.

Frequently, legislators are invited — at no expense — to attend the ALEC boot camps, which are held at a lavish resort in Florida.

No Minnesota House members attended last week’s boot camp, a GOP spokesperson said.  Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said he didn’t know whether any state senators are members or if they have attended recent boot camps.

Dayton ties bills to ALEC influence

The four bills that passed through the Legislature — some with at least some DFL support — came straight from the ALEC manual, Dayton said.  The same reforms are being floated in many other states.

That charge — that these reforms were actually produced by ALEC — was denied by Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. Ortman, who is an attorney, said she wrote many of the reforms based on her own experiences in the courts.

The bills vetoed by Dayton would have brought significant changes to the process of civil justice in Minnesota. They would have cut the statute of limitations from six to four years, made it more difficult to receive class-action status in lawsuits, limit attorney fees paid as part of lawsuits (this could have had major impact on such things as wrongful termination and sexual harassment suits) and slashed the interest rates paid on judgments when judgments are appealed.

“They’re siding mostly with wrong-doers,” said Dayton.

Republicans insisted that these reforms were indirect jobs bills because they would “improve the business climate” of Minnesota.

“He [the governor] can pick a fight all he wants,” said Zellers. “What I know is that 62,000 business owners asked for this [the changes]This is not a coalition of wrong-doers.”

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Beyond that, Dayton said, Republicans didn’t bother to work with his office, or with Minnesota courts. Dayton noted that a recent study by a courts task force opposed some of the reforms passed by the Legislature.

In a letter to Senate President Michelle Fischbach explaining one of his vetoes, Dayton wrote: “I am perplexed by the charge that Minnesota is an excessively litigious state or has a negative civil justice system for business. According to the Minnesota Supreme Court, civil case filings for injury claims are down over 40 percent since 1997, despite our expanding population. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks Minnesota among the very top states for our treatment of business in the courtroom.”

Senjem: ‘It time to put the spears down’

Republican leaders certainly couldn’t have been surprised by the vetoes, but they did seem surprised by the anger of the governor.

“It’s time to put the spears down,” said Senjem.

Of course, it was just a week ago that the Senjem-led Senate was tossing a few spears of its own when it rejected the governor’s appointment of Ellen Anderson to chair the Public Utilities Commission.

After that rejection, Dayton questioned whether the Republican-controlled Legislature was “fit to lead.”

He came close to repeating that charge this morning.  For example, Dayton was asked if it would be possible for him to work with the GOP leadership on anything this session.

“Look at what else is cooking up there,” he said. “Their amendments, gun laws, anti-union measures. What’s driving this?”

But in mellower moments, the governor did say his office and the Legislature still could work together.

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“Come to me with real job legislation and I’m ready to work with them,” he said.