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Did Bakk trade away the minimum-wage measure for Capitol-repairs bonding bill?

Three legislators say Senate leaders got passage of the bonding bill in exchange for no action on the wage measure and the anti-bullying bill. The Senate leader denies it.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is shown speaking at a May 21 end-of-session press conference.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

What will it take for Minnesota’s DFL legislators to pass a minimum-wage hike next year and overcome the backroom politics that some lawmakers say doomed it during this session’s last days?

Democrats leaving this year’s legislative session said they went home disappointed that the DFL-controlled House and Senate couldn’t agree on a compromise to increase the state’s minimum wage.

The House pushed for a hike from the state’s current level of $6.15 to $9.50, while the Senate went for $7.75. Minnesota’s minimum wage, which hasn’t been raised since 2005, is far below the federal rate of $7.25 an hour.

 Estimates of how many workers the hike would affect range from the nearly 100,000 Minnesotans who would get a raise at the $7.75 level to about 350,000 who would qualify for higher pay at the $9.50 level.

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There’s sharp disagreement, however, about who’s to blame for the impasse.

Differing versions

Two Republicans and one DFLer told MinnPost that the minimum wage bill – and a proposal to toughen the state’s anti-bullying law in schools – fell victim to last-minute political maneuvering between DFL and GOP legislative leaders.

DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler and two Republican legislators who declined to speak on the record say Senate leaders came to a deal that secured a bonding bill for Capitol repairs and ensured an orderly end to the session in exchange for no action on those two policy provisions.

Winkler, the chief House sponsor of the minimum wage legislation, said Republican lawmakers told him of the deal. He described his understanding of it to the Star Tribune just after the session ended May 20.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and a Senate staff spokesman deny such a tradeoff.

The Senate unveiled the minimum wage hike as a key priority in the first days of this legislative session but never could reach a compromise with the House.

 “We just kind of ran out of time to get an agreement with the House on raising the minimum wage,” Bakk told reporters at a press conference the morning after the session ended last week. “I do believe we’re going to come back next session and do that.”

But end-of-session dealing appears to have played a role in sidelining the minimum-wage legislation, Winkler and the Republicans say.

Bakk, however, denied the existence of such a compromise when asked about it in the hours after session finished. He and the other DFL leaders blamed the lack of progress on the tight timeline.

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Bakk’s denial conflicts with a very specific recounting of the agreement that Republicans say occurred in the Senate.

Winkler told MinnPost that he was standing next to House Speaker Paul Thissen at the speaker’s rostrum when Minority Leader Kurt Daudt told Winkler about the agreement.

Deal or no deal?

Thissen said in an interview that he had heard about a supposed deal but didn’t have any specific knowledge of it. He hadn’t discussed the issue with Bakk or Hann.

When asked about the diverging stories, Winkler responded, “Well, that may not have been a deal, but all the Republicans believe it was a deal. One way or another, somebody’s misinformed.”

Winkler said that on the final day of session, when conference committee meetings were scheduled on the minimum wage, DFL senators simply didn’t show up. He also made a couple of offers to the Senate that weren’t accepted. Senate minimum wage advocates appeared unable to sell a hike above $8 to some of their colleagues, including several rural and suburban Democrats.

DFL Sen. Chris Eaton, who led negotiations on the Senate side, said she had secured 30 votes for a compromise bill, which is short of the Senate’s 34-vote majority.

She also said that some senators were under pressure from the business community, and “I wasn’t getting a lot of assistance from the leadership to push them to vote for it.”

At about dinnertime on the final night of session, Eaton and another Senate conferee brought Winkler’s final minimum wage offer to Bakk.

Bakk responded, “It’s too late. Don’t even answer,” Eaton said.

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“But I did anyway,” she said, informing Winkler that she didn’t have the votes.

Eaton also said she had heard rumors of a deal to ditch the wage increase but couldn’t verify if they were accurate.

Last-minute time crunch

Winkler said that as the number of contentious issues that lawmakers had to deal with dwindled, he hoped that the minimum wage bill would be able to be solved.

Amos Briggs, the Senate DFL spokesman, blamed lawmakers’ failure to reach agreement on the time crunch.

“By all accounts, the minimum wage legislation stalled this session because the Senate and House conferees could not reach consensus on exactly how much to raise the minimum wage,” Briggs wrote in an email.

“The House chair called the first minimum-wage conference committee hearing on the final day of session, and unfortunately, the committee was unable to reach an agreement under the time constraints of the Legislature’s constitutionally mandated midnight adjournment.”

The final hours of the 2013 legislative session were certainly rushed. Here’s a recap of how legislative sources say events played out.

Republican senators strongly opposed the bullying measure and were set to debate it for hours, all but ensuring a sloppy end to the session. Democrats would have needed to use their majority status to cut off the debate, which they wanted to avoid for political reasons.

Bakk was also pushing for a bonding bill that included the Capitol renovations. He made it clear to reporters and other lawmakers that he wasn’t leaving the session without securing funding for the repairs.

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The project, which was already partially funded, could have been temporarily waylaid without the bonding bill’s additional $109 million allocation.

House and Senate Republicans had been fighting against a full-size bonding bill this year, and DFLers needed their votes to get to the 60 percent majorities required to pass such infrastructure packages.

Bonding bill push

With three days left in the session, House Democrats tried and failed to gather enough Republican votes for an $800 million borrowing bill that included the Capitol project.

The chief House sponsor appeared resigned to the possibility of no bonding in 2013.

But Bakk was undeterred, and the House and Senate ultimately sent Gov. Mark Dayton a $156 million package, which included the Capitol project.

“It was a strong priority for me to make sure that these renovations of our state Capitol continue, and I think we were at significant risk of that not happening this session,” Bakk told reporters shortly after session ended, just after midnight last Tuesday.

To make that happen, Bakk came to an agreement with Senate Minority Leader David Hann that the Senate would drop the minimum wage negotiations in return for GOP votes on a bonding bill, a Republican with knowledge of the deal told MinnPost.

Hann and Bakk met late the night before the session ended to discuss the bullying bill, which Republicans were prepared to debate through the night. That long debate would have severely limited the amount of time the DFL had left to wrap up the state budget and finalize other bills.

In an effort to “find an orderly way to exit the session,” the lawmaker said, Hann agreed to limit debate on the omnibus tax bill if Bakk would table the bullying bill.

Bakk asked if Hann would consider delivering some GOP support for a bonding proposal. The Republican leader had been on record opposing bonding this session.

In a turnaround, Hann agreed to provide Republican votes for the borrowing bill if Bakk shut down the already-floundering minimum wage hike, according to the legislator.

Bakk denies a deal

Bakk denied to MinnPost that any such deal existed shortly after midnight on the final night of the legislative session. When asked if there were trading around the bullying bill and minimum wage hike for Capitol bonding, he responded, “No.”

Bakk has been out of town this week and unavailable for further comment.

“Sen. Bakk returned home to his district late last week to meet with constituents and area officials and to spend some time with family at their cabin (mostly out of cell range, I’m afraid),” Briggs wrote in a Wednesday email.

Briggs deferred to Bakk when asked about the supposed deal or why there is disagreement between parties about what transpired at the end of the session.

The borrowing legislation was the key.

Speaker Thissen told reporters the day after session that the bonding bill was “the piece that allowed us to finish up the session,” referring to a House-Senate standoff where both chambers were holding onto bills to try to gain leverage over the other body.

Winkler said the Senate was willing to go into a special session to get what it wanted and had a stronger negotiating position than the House because senators serve four-year terms. The House will be up for re-election next year.

And Bakk’s push for the Capitol repairs was serious enough, the sources say, to shut down the minimum-wage negotiations for the year.

Derailing that bill is a big plus for Republicans, who had philosophically criticized the minimum-wage legislation all session long.

“I want people to get paid more, just like they do,” Daudt said of the DFL legislators. “The problem is their approach is backwards. By increasing the minimum wage, you’re just saying, ‘Pay more,’ ” he said. “When the economy is booming and everybody’s doing well, there are actually employers competing for employees.”

Hann, too, agreed that raising the wage “would have been more harmful than helpful to the people at the entry level trying to find a way to get into the job market.”

Winkler continuing wage push

Winkler, however, noted polling that shows the majority of Minnesotans support a $9.50 minimum wage.

He also promised to continue pushing the issue in next year’s session.

“I will be making an effort between now and then to raise public awareness of the issue, to build a campaign for it,” Winkler said. “I know that there’ll be a lot of people in the state, a big coalition of people working to raise the minimum wage, so I expect it to be one of the two major issues in the next session.”

Bakk said at the post-session press conference that the Senate members of the minimum-wage conference committee — which remains open and active until next year — would use the interim to engage the business and labor communities to find a “balance” where the wage should go.

Eaton plans to research the districts where she lacked support to see if she can use the information to gain hesitant senators’ votes for the proposal.

Thissen said in an interview this week that he thought it would be better to hold out for a “meaningful increase” than to pass the more modest hike the Senate pushed for. Otherwise, he said, “We’ll be back again in another few years to fight the same battle over again.”

But Winkler sees the issue differently.

“To give up a wage increase for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans for the next year just in order to restore the state Capitol, I think it s a real shame,” Winkler said.

“I think that’s the opposite of why people send us to St. Paul. We’re supposed to serve them, not ourselves.”