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The best of frenemies: why the Dayton-Bakk pay raise rift isn’t likely to be their last fight

In the five years Dayton and Bakk have held their respective positions as governor and Senate majority leader, the two have developed a regular habit of butting heads. 

In the five years state Sen. Bakk, left, and Gov. Dayton have held their respective leadership positions, the two have had plenty of dust-ups.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

Tom Bakk thinks history has a tendency to repeat itself in state politics. Tempers flare. Tensions boil over. Then they fade away.

By his account, that includes the DFL Senate majority leader’s latest “skirmish” with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who last week said Bakk “stabbed me in the back” when he led his caucus to pass a six-month delay for pay raises for two dozen members of the governor’s Cabinet. Dayton said he was “blindsided” by the move, adding that he trusted House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt more than Bakk, a member of his own party.

But Bakk, a senator from Cook who is always quick with a historical reference, said this isn’t the first time a governor has had a public dispute with legislative leaders in their own party. DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, Dayton’s political mentor, had a serious rift with legislators in the late 1980s, particularly after he vetoed a DFL property tax relief tax bill that led to a fall special session to pass a new one.

“I think what I learned long ago, and maybe before I even came to the Legislature, was to never let disputes become personal,” Bakk said as he was surrounded by reporters on the Senate floor Monday, his first substantial comment on the matter since Dayton’s remarks last week.

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“There’s always another issue to try and work through. After one disagreement we are going to need to find common ground. That is one of my core leadership principles, is to not let any disputes become personal in nature.”

“If the governor wants to make it personal, he can,” he continued. “But I’m not going to get into a tit for tat, personal attacks back and forth. It’s just not my style of leadership.”

Bakk and Dayton: a long history of disagreements  

History can also repeat itself in shorter time frames. In the five years Dayton and Bakk have held their respective leadership positions, the two have had plenty of dust-ups. Just a few weeks ago, the two disagreed over who should get what space in the state Capitol when a restoration project is complete in 2017. Last year, Dayton butted heads with the Bakk-led Senate Democrats over an increase the state’s minimum wage.

Prior to the pay raise controversy, the pair’s most public spat also came last year, when Dayton accused Bakk and Senate Democrats of holding hostage a time-sensitive package of tax cuts in order to move a new Senate office building forward.

In fact, for anyone who paid close enough attention to that drama, the recent back-and-forth may sound awfully familiar. Back then, Dayton said he agreed in principle with the need for a new office building for senators, but he thought the project cost too much, and that the design needed to be scaled back. Before the pay raise vote last week, Bakk said he agree in principle that commissioners should get raises, but that he had “reservations” about their size.

It’s worth noting too that the electoral realities for the two men have been reversed in the past 12 months. During the office building debate last year, Dayton was looking at going before voters in the fall; senators were not, and Republicans used the office building as a cudgel on the campaign trail — a way to accuse Democrats in the House and Dayton of wasteful tax-and-spend policies. Today, Dayton — having easily won re-election — says he’s never going to run for office again. But all 67 state senators are on the ballot next fall, and they’re certain to hear about the commissioner pay raises again.

What’s next

The Senate proposal on the raises, which passed on a 63-2 vote, allows lawmakers to review the increases in committees this year. If they don’t take a vote on the raises before July, the increases will automatically kick in again. House Republicans still haven’t taken a vote on their version of the bill, which also sends emergency funding to the Minnesota Zoo, the Department of Health for Ebola preparedness and the Department of Human Services for upgrades at the state’s security hospital in St. Peter.

“I think it’s still the right decision for the Legislature to review the case study that was done,” Bakk said. “We may well come to the same conclusion the governor did, that these are the numbers the commissioners should be at. But right now we don’t have the data.”

“I’m personally very comfortable working with [Dayton],” Bakk added. “I was equally surprised that I knew nothing about the pay raises until I read it in the newspaper.”

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One of the main parts of the controversy was Dayton said he didn’t know that Bakk was planning to suspend the raises, which Democrats authorized him to do in a 2013 law change. Bakk said he told Dayton about a slew of options the Senate was considering to bring to the floor.

“What we did was indicated to him Wednesday night that we would be having a caucus to discuss our options when we got to the Senate floor. He asked, ‘Well do I need to come to caucus?’ I said I didn’t think that was necessary,” Bakk said. “The governor wasn’t asked to pick one of the options that I laid out to him, I just laid out to him what the potential options were for the Senate.”

The two haven’t spoken since Thursday, Bakk said, but their staff interacted over the weekend. There’s no clear solution to their dispute yet, but Bakk didn’t seem too worried about the rest of the session. He expects to meet with Dayton sometime this week.

“I’ve built a pretty strong image around here as someone that’s pretty candid and honest, and the governor is certainly entitled to his view,” Bakk said. “But my office has had a couple of conversations with his office over the last couple of days, and we will see where it goes from there.”