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Are tax cuts and minimum wage bill being held hostage for Senate Office Building?

There’s a common belief among DFL House members and GOP senators that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is going slow on those issues until he gets the building approved.

Some have argued that Sen. Tom Bakk has stalled the minimum wage issue as a “bargaining chip" for the Senate Office Building.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

The old adage “two can play that game’’ is being played out at the Capitol as DFLers in the House and the Senate go nose to nose, jaw to jaw, threat to threat.

There’s a common belief among DFL House members, as well as Republican senators, that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is going to slow down virtually every bill  of substance the House passes until he gets the Senate Office Building he seems to want so much.

One problem for Bakk: House Majority Leader Erin Murphy heads the House Rules Committee, and that group holds the keys to Bakk’s building in its hands.

When the $63 million building (and accompanying $27 million parking ramp)  was tucked into the omnibus tax bill last year, there was one little requirement that’s given the House leverage against Bakk. 

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Before construction could begin, both the Senate and House rules committees would have to approve final plans.

The Senate Rules Committee gave its approval as soon as the session began.

House Rules Committee is key

The House Rules Committee, headed by Murphy,  has held a hearing but has taken no vote — and has no vote planned.

“We’re doing our due diligence,’’ said Murphy of her plans for the bill.

That’s legislative speak for “We have a big stick and we’re gonna use it.’’

The building may well be the key to all that happens — or doesn’t happen — this session. The fates of such big issues as tax cuts and minimum wages may well be tied to the building.

Back up a moment.   The Senate majority has its offices in the Capitol, while the minority is tucked into far less comfy spaces in the State Office Building.

But because of the $272 million Capitol restoration project, senators will have to be out starting the summer of 2015, and when the restoration is complete, there will be fewer Senate offices in the Capitol than there are now.

There will be fewer offices because creating more public spaces in the Capitol is a part of the renovation.

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Bakk loves the plan to have a new Senate Office Building constructed across University Avenue from the Capitol. This glass building would hold the offices of 44 senators of both parties. The remaining 23 senators — majority and miniority leaders, as well as various committee chairs of various committees — would retain offices in the Capitol.

Bakk touts Capitol renovation

Bakk, it should be noted, says his love of the new building is based on his passion for renovation of the Capitol.

“The new building is critical to keeping the Capitol renovation on schedule,’’ Bakk said Wednesday. 

The building was stitched  to the omnibus tax bill, which was passed at the end of the last session. (Tacking a building onto a tax bill seemed so strange to former GOP Rep. Jim Knoblach that he went to court and sued, claiming that the process was a violation of the constitution, which requires that laws cover only one subject. Knoblach’s first effort was tossed out of court, but he’s appealing.)

For months now, GOP pols have been taking potshots at the building.

“We don’t need this ostentatious crystal palace’’ is how Senate Minority Leader Dave Hann has put it.

Hann also has gone on record as saying that he believes the DFL Senate is moving so slowly on such things as tax cuts because they want to use that legislation as a “bargaining chip’’ for such things as the Senate Office Building.

Others believe that Bakk has stalled the minimum wage issue with the same idea in mind.

Bakk, of course, denies that he’s playing any sort of negotiating game with the House and the governor.

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“Haven’t thought about that,’’ he said with a straight face.

What else could he say? If the legislative process is a massive, complex poker game, you don’t tell the world what you’re holding in your hand.

What’s rapidly changing is that more and more DFLers, including Gov. Mark Dayton, are raising eyebrows about the building, or at least about its cost.

DFL House members and the governor — who stand for re-election this fall — might be willing to sign off on the building, but they must have something in return — and it must come fairly quickly.

All DFLers understand that the building will be used by the GOP as an election issue. At the least, DFLers want to be able to start undermining the damage of that by being able to point to things that will be more positive to their base — a minimum wage bill, lowered taxes — in November.

November is not as big a problem for the Senate, whose members aren’t up for re-election until 2016.

Although few seem willing to go on the record and say that the Bakk-led Senate is hurting the DFL for the next election cycle, there is growing resentment.

One House member said this week, “It’s easier to work with the Republicans than it is to deal with them [DFL senators].’’

Disagreements the norm, Bakk says

Bakk seems undisturbed by the growing rancor between House and Senate DFLers.

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“It’s a bi-cameral system,’’ he said, adding that in his 20 years in St. Paul it’s typical for there to be stresses and strains between the House and Senate.

Hopes of passing a quick, clean,  minimum-wage increase already have been dashed. Bakk has made it clear that the Senate will not support an inflation provision that the House, labor and most progressives think is nearly as important as a base wage increase.

Under the House measure, there would have been an automatic annual increase in the minimum (capped at 2.5 percent), after it hit the $9.50 mark.

Bakk said again Wednesday that he can’t get his caucus to support that.

Additionally, the foot-dragging by the Senate has given the ag industry — with the exception of the Farmers Union — time to block the 40-hour week provision of the House minimum-wage package.  Big ag doesn’t want to have to  do such things as pay overtime after 40 hours.

That’s a huge loss for ag workers, thousands of whom are immigrants.

Minimum wage bill at issue

Some in the labor movement are outraged by how the minimum wage bill is being weakened.

At least one labor leader has said it’s “worthless” to even attempt to lobby DFL senators. Rather, he said, that all efforts should be focused on the governor.

For his part, Bakk said the Senate has moved a great distance on minimum wage.

“We offered $9.50 [in conference committee this session] and they [the House] objected,’’ Bakk said. “I’m at a loss as to what more we could offer.’’

Bakk acts just as perplexed over why the Senate is being criticized for moving so slowly on the tax cut bill that the House passed quickly.

The hope of DFL House members and the governor was that some of the tax cuts  could be applied to some taxpayers this year. After all, nothing puts a voter in better spirits that a lower-than-expected tax bill.

Dayton applauded the House for its quick work, came up with a few new tax cuts of his own and asked both legislative bodies to have a tax cut package on his desk in short order.

All along, Bakk’s had a simple response to the governor’s request.

“It’s not gonna happen,’’ the Senate leader has continually said.

Tax bill by end of month?

He repeated that Wednesday, adding that maybe the Senate could move on “something by the end of the month.’’

Bakk was to meet with Dayton Wednesday afternoon. Presumably, Dayton will again try to push the Senate to move more quickly on the key policy issues that also are important politically to the DFL.

But Bakk is not easily pushed — especially when he’s holding out for something he wants.

What he wants is that building.

“I’m waiting for the House Rules Committee,’’ he said.

But two can play the waiting game.