A self-described congenial pit bull, incoming GOP House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt will have to strike a delicate tone to get his caucus agenda taken seriously in the fast-approaching legislative session.
In a phone conversation with MinnPost last week, Daudt discussed Republicans’ goals for this session at at time when Democrats hold the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 22 years.
First elected in the Republican wave of 2010, Daudt became an assistant majority leader during his first term. Before that, Daudt served as campaign manager for Marty Seifert’s brief gubernatorial bid. His leadership team will take the reins from House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Majority Leader Matt Dean.
Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
MinnPost: With DFL control in both houses of the Legislature, what role do you think you — and Republicans in general — will play in negotiating the wide and complex challenges facing Minnesota this session?
Kurt Daudt: We want to be productive and help the DFL as much as we can. We understand our role, and we understand that the DFL can do what they want without our votes for the most part. We appreciate their offer to work in a bipartisan fashion. I know the leaders on the DFL side have made comments that the message they got from the election was that Minnesotans wanted the Legislature to work together and they didn’t want gridlock, and they have offered to work in a bipartisan fashion. We fully intend to take them up on that. If they choose not to keep their word and work with us, we intend to offer our own clear alternatives when we disagree with them and offer what we believe is a better course for Minnesota when we do disagree.
MP: Will the Republican House caucus, as the minority party, provide a budget counter-proposal to Gov. Mark Dayton’s spending and revenue plan for the upcoming biennium?
KD: We have not discussed that yet. We have more elections, and the rest of our leadership team will be filled out on Dec. 12 at our next caucus meeting. I don’t want to jump the gun and be too premature on whether or not we’ll do that, but we hope to participate in the budget process. My hope would be the House can put together one budget. If we don’t agree, if we don’t offer a full budget, I assume that we certainly will offer amendments and offer pieces of a budget that we hope would bring it to something that we could support.
MP: How do you foresee transitioning from having two high-profile Republican leaders in the House to your team? How will it be working with former Speaker Kurt Zellers and former Majority Leader Matt Dean?
KD: Speaker Zellers and Majority Leader Dean have both been very helpful to me in this transition. They both have reached out and offered to be as helpful as they can during the next legislative session. I think they both will play an important role in our caucus and in helping us over the next two years.
My approach will be very much a collaborative, team effort. My plan is to really bring members of the caucus into the leadership team and utilize them. We’ve got a lot of talent in our caucus and, really, my goal is to let people see that. I don’t always need to be the guy in front of the microphone or the guy in front of the TV camera, and I’ve indicated to the caucus that I want others to step forward.
MP: As an assistant leader in your first term, what’s it like to move up so quickly in terms of party rank?
KD: It’s been very, very unexpected. Obviously, the election didn’t go exactly the way that we thought it was going to. We thought that we would still be in the majority, and I think we still thought Kurt and Matt would be the leaders of our caucus. Obviously, things didn’t go that way and, lo and behold, here I am, so it’s an interesting opportunity for me, but it’s moreover an interesting opportunity for our caucus.
As I said, it was very unexpected, and part of that I think is good. Part of it, I’m going to need some help from those around me. Being a new member, I don’t have a lot of experience in the Legislature, and I think there can be a downside to that, and I’m aware of that, and I will bring in people that can complement my abilities.
I also think there’s a good side to that because I don’t have a lot of the baggage, and I don’t have a lot of the preconceived notions or those kinds of things …. I think there’s also a bonus to being kind of new and not having your mind made up on what you’re going to do, and you get to approach everything from a very organic place.
MP: Shortly after your announcement, comparisons between the philosophies of Tom Emmer and Marty Seifert surfaced. Can we read anything into that analysis? Going further, what sort of attitude will you bring to the table?
KD: As far as I’m concerned, the Seifert-Emmer stuff is long in the past. I think that both have brought very valuable things to our party, and both are doing other things now. And obviously I’m an example of a new leader that has emerged and stepped forward to help us moving forward.
My style might be slightly different than both of them, yet I can probably learn a lot from both of them and both of their styles. I think I have a reputation of being somebody at the Capitol that everybody gets along with … I think that’s my reputation, and I think that puts me in a unique position to really have credibility when I’m negotiating and talking to the other side of the aisle.
I think everybody knows that I can also be a pit bull once in a while, so being the friendly guy that smiles doesn’t mean I’m going to be the guy that gets walked on or taken advantage of, so I think I have a unique set of skills and abilities that make me a little different than some of the people we’ve had lead the caucus in the past.
MP: Republicans campaigned on moving Minnesota from a huge deficit to a $1 billion surplus during the campaign cycle. We again face a deficit this session after two years of GOP majorities. Who can take credit for the current fiscal climate?
KD: I’m very happy to take credit for the current fiscal climate …. We’ve reduced that deficit drastically. We weren’t able to get it down in the black or positive numbers, but we reduced that number drastically. We did a lot of reforms in the different departments in the budget. Those efficiencies to be found in the reforms that we did are the reason the budget is in such good shape. Now, we took a $6.2 billion deficit and turned that into a $1.3 billion surplus. We’re pretty proud of that, and I think we showed that you can do that without raising taxes, and I hope that the DFL will follow our example and follow our lead and really be collaborative.
MP: DFL lawmakers have so far placed “tax reform” as a key session priority, and the governor campaigned on raising taxes. What are your thoughts on potential tax hikes? Will we see any GOP support?
KD: I think we believe strongly that it can be done without tax increases. Right now if you look at the last February forecast, you’ll see that … they’re going to have $2 billion of additional tax revenue without raising one penny of taxes, and they’re in control, so they get to decide how to spend that. It absolutely can be done without raising taxes, and frankly, I’m kind of shocked we’re talking about tax increases already, and I think it shows where the priorities are.
Now, am I just against tax increases? No, but I think there’s a lot of nonpartisan reports out there that show you that increasing taxes is harmful to the economy and it doesn’t help create jobs … That’s not what we need to see right now in Minnesota, so we hope the DFL is committed, like we are, to recovering the economy and creating jobs in Minnesota.
MP: As part of those tax reform proposals, Speaker-designate Paul Thissen said Democrats want to correct Minnesota’s chronic structural deficit problem. Is that realistic?
KD: I think that we can. I think part of the structural deficit problem is that the Legislature in the past hasn’t wanted to make tough decisions. And it’s not tough decisions on revenue — it’s tough decisions on spending. And we’ve done things like the school shift that they’ve done numerous times over the last … four or five years, and those are not things that we think are fiscally responsible. Obviously, the Democrats shifted an additional 20 percent four or five years ago. The governor proposed an additional 20 percent to take the shift to 50-50 …
So, what he showed is he would rather let the school districts borrow money and have the state keep money in its savings account than to pay those schools so they don’t have to borrow money. And I think that was so that they could use it as a political issue and campaign against Republicans on that. And frankly, we got beat on the message on that issue and the DFL, certainly, they are the ones responsible for that.
MP: Turning to the election, what sort of message did voters send to Republicans in Minnesota this election cycle?
KD: I’m not sure that I’ve had enough time to really go through and dissect this. I think the initial reaction from some people has been, ‘It was this issue or it was that candidate that affected the whole thing.’ What I really think happened, my gut reaction is that it was numerous things that impacted the election cycle.
I think everybody was shocked especially that the House lost the majority, and I think even Paul Thissen would tell you he was probably just as shocked as we were. I don’t think people saw it coming. I think we thought that it might narrow a little bit, that we might lose a couple of seats, but I don’t think anybody thought that we were going to be losing the majority.
In the last week of the election, obviously, everything broke in their direction. I don’t know if that was ballot initiatives or if it was hurricanes or if it was Barack Obama. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I think all of those things probably played a little part in the results that we got.
I don’t know that there’s any mandate for the DFL. I don’t think that they can say, ‘We got elected on raising taxes.’ If you look at the literature from the candidates that were running on the DFL side, they ran as fiscal conservatives, and believe me, they did that because they know that Minnesotans don’t want to see tax increases. I don’t know of a candidate that ran on tax increases, so we’re going to do our best to hold the candidates that ran accountable to their word.
MP: Will we see more bipartisanship than the two years that Democrats held minority status?
KD: That’s my plan, and I think that my reputation that I spoke about earlier of being somebody that wants to work with them and somebody that’s easy to get along with, I think that represents that I’ll maybe have a little different style, and I really do want to work with them.
However, with controlling both bodies in the Legislature and the governor’s office comes huge responsibility. You can do whatever you want. They don’t need me, and they don’t need votes from my caucus except for on the bonding bill. That’s a huge responsibility, and we’ll see if they hold up to their word of working in a bipartisan fashion.
MP: Thissen mentioned bonding as an area where Democrats hope to work with Republicans, considering the 60 percent vote required to pass a borrowing bill. What are your thoughts on bonding this session, an off-year?
KD: I don’t see a reason to do a bonding bill in the first year of the biennium here. Traditionally, the second year of the biennium is the bonding year, and we’ll lean toward that.
My explanation of that is, I think we need to get our minds wrapped around the budget and see what direction the Democrats want to go on the budget before we talk about borrowing money, and that’s what you’re doing when you’re bonding. If we’re going to have massive tax increases and then on top of that we’re going to borrow money, obviously those things aren’t going to fly with my caucus, and they’re going to expect some opposition from the caucus on that.
MP: Do you see any social issue — either from the GOP or the DFL — as likely to emerge, or will this session be largely confined to economic, budget or tax issues?
KD: I’m hearing buzz that they probably will deal with some social issues, and again, they have the votes, and they don’t need us, and they can do whatever they want. My hope is that they’ll stick to the fiscal issues, and I think that’s what Minnesotans really care about.
If we can focus on that stuff, we’re going to have a great session. We’re going to have a very collaborative and very respectful session. If they’re talking about tax increases right out of the chute, who knows what can happen? We’ve shown that you can fix the situation without raising taxes, and we hope that they’ll look to our example.