As Senate leaders continue to meet privately to resolve past differences, the public rift between the Republican and Democratic caucuses appeared as wide as ever Monday.
Senate Democrats accused their Republican colleagues in the majority of using taxpayer resources to produce campaign materials. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk told Minnesota Public Radio he would file a complaint against Senate Republicans with the Ramsey County attorney.
“I think it’s absolutely outrageous that they would use state resources, state equipment, state employees and state paper to print what is clearly campaign literature,” Bakk said.
He also called the use of Senate resources in that way both illegal and a violation of the body’s rules.
But Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, one of the lawmakers under fire, said Republicans didn’t do anything wrong. The fliers — passed out at last Tuesday’s precinct caucuses — were simply legislative updates, he said. The document is titled “Senate GOP Legislative Update.”
The brochure displays the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus logo, and the first paragraphs of the document describe how the Senate GOP “delivered for Minnesota” by making the “tough choices on the spending side” to resolve a $5 billion budget deficit.
Senjem said lawmakers on both sides of the aisle use staff and state resources to communicate with citizens in their districts.
“It’s not unusual,” he said in an interview Monday night. “It’s common practice on both sides to do that. I mean, we want to communicate with our constituents, both sides, and that’s what this was.”
Senjem said Senate counsel approved using staff and resources to print the materials. The literature went out with 15 senators for under $50, according to MPR.
A memo from Senate Counsel Thomas Bottern that was sent to Senate Republicans also backed up Senjem. It said the 5,000 pamphlets weren’t campaign materials and didn’t “compel political activity.”
Senjem first learned of Bakk’s plan to bring the matter to the Ramsey County attorney on Monday night.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got far more important things to do during this session right now than worry about sheets of paper,” Senjem said. “If we need to have a grand discussion about all of this — affecting both caucuses — let’s have that. We can have that in the Rules Committee.”
Senjem also said he’ll use the same literature at a Chamber of Commerce meeting on Friday.
This is the latest in a series of public battles this session in which Bakk has criticized Senate Republicans.
Bakk has cited several grievances.
On the first day of session, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee voted to cut the DFL caucus budget by $444,400 while sparing Republicans. Shortly after, the Senate voted not to confirm Ellen Anderson as chairwoman of Public Utilities Commission Chairwoman, despite protests from the Democrats. Also, the lead Senate administrator hired a lawyer to defend against a possible lawsuit without conferring with the minority.
Senate Democrats learned about the attorney and the extra expense through the press. After each action, Bakk aired his unhappiness about the GOP’s actions with reporters.
On a number of occasions, he’s asked Senjem to convene the Rules Committee to debate proposals before taking action.
Bakk, for instance, wrote a Jan. 31 letter to Senjem seeking a discussion of “ongoing concerns relating to the Senate operating budget” and potential litigation from Michael Brodkorb, a former Senate Republican staffer who was let go in December. The DFL caucus expressed concern about the cost of using an outside attorney when the Senate budget already is out of balance.
On Monday, the Rules Committee met for the first time since Bakk and other Democrats argued for an hour against reductions leveled singly at their staff.
“They fired the first shot,” Bakk said of Republicans that day in January.
But after a few minutes, Monday’s meeting casually disbanded. The result? It appointed new representatives to the Subcommittee on Committees.
So, why was Bakk so quiet after insisting adamantly — both in writing and at the press podium — that the Rules Committee would be his battleground?
Because the Republicans have listened, he said.
Leaders in the Senate from both parties have met privately twice in the past week to discuss alternate fixes to its budget and to hash out the lawyer issue.
That’s something Senate Deputy Majority Leader Julianne Ortman hinted at in late January. “We will look at whether there is a fairer way to do this,” Ortman said about the DFL budget cuts. “I wish [Bakk] would work with us more before he makes statements.”
But, to Bakk, it appears his outward anger worked.
“The result of that was they reached out and asked for meetings on both subjects,” he said Monday in an interview.
“We understand this place,” Senjem said. “It’s full of politics, and if you understand that and simply know that, this is the game that’s played — and it’s all to sway public perception one way or the other.”
Another meeting is planned. Bakk said Senjem asked the DFLers to “dust off” older caucus budget proposals, such as a potential hiring freeze.
Senjem called the meetings “cordial” and “conversational,” but said, “We haven’t gotten anything resolved yet
“We were attempting to avail some of their concerns and we basically asked them for some ideas,” he said.
But Senjem — who has taken offense at several remarks from Gov. Mark Dayton and the Democrats — called last week for the governor to “put the spears down.”
“We are characterized in ways that I don’t think were necessarily appropriate and productive,” Senjem said. “I just hope we find some calmness here that will allow us to move forward and get the work of the people done.”