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What is Mark Dayton getting out of the special session?

No, the special session won’t address universal pre-K or protections for the state auditor’s role. But Dayton was never in a very good negotiating position. 

Gov. Mark Dayton had little leverage beyond the power of the bully pulpit.
Office of the Governor

If you want to understand the negotiations leading up to the upcoming special session, it might be helpful to remember that House Speaker Kurt Daudt once worked at a car dealership.

Daudt’s counterpart in the negotiations, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, started the process by saying he’d call the special session only after Daudt agreed to give him money for universal pre-K for 4-year-olds. “That’s my No. 1 priority,” he governor said. 

It was the legislative equivalent of walking into a car dealer and demanding the premium package, moon roof and all.

But then the governor said he needed a few other “must have” items, like the removal of language undermining the state auditor position, even after Dayton signed the budget bill that included that provision. In other words, the governor was now demanding leather seats — after he’d already signed a check to buy a car with cloth ones.

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You can imagine Daudt all but saying: “Let me talk to my manager about this.” 

In the end, of course, Dayton didn’t get universal pre-K or any language about the state auditor. After making demands for a Cadillac, he ended up driving off the lot in a stripped down Chevy.

But before jumping to conclusions about how the governor blinked, it’s important to remember that he was never in a very good negotiating position. 

The governor’s one great bargaining chip was his ability to say when a special session would be held, and doing so only after he got an agreement on what exactly will be considered there. But even if he knew exactly what he wanted from the session, Dayton had little leverage beyond the power of the bully pulpit. After all, he had made it clear from the get-go that he was going to do just about anything to avoid a government shutdown. “I have no intention to see this go to June 30th and a possible shutdown,” he said. “I’m just not going to subject people to that.”

So Dayton, for all his bluster, settled in ways that probably mollified his various political bases. He didn’t get pre-K money, but the reality is there isn’t a groundswell of support for universal classrooms for 4-year-old kids anyway. There is, however, huge support for increasing funding for K-12 education among educators and the DFL base, and the education bill that Dayton signed off on will increase K-12 funding over the bill he originally vetoed by $125 million. And now he has more time to create the public and legislative support for his vision of universal pre-K school. He has vowed that he’ll go after that with energy.

“It took me four years to get taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent,” he said after conceding on universal pre-K. “I’m not going to step back on this. I’m going to make sure next session or the session after that, whether I’m out of office, that we will have this enacted for the benefit of all 4-year-olds.”

Only time, the outcome of future legislative races and the shape of the economy will tell whether this is just typical concession talk, or whether Dayton has the ability to change a lot of minds about the importance of his vision.

Just how Dayton got himself stuck in the middle of the auditor’s mess is less clear. The simple fact is that the governor signed a bill that contained language he said moments later he was willing to go to political war over. How did the governor — and DFL legislators, for that matter — manage to turn the fight over this obscure office into a front-page story that made Dayton look foolish? 

Obviously, Dayton could have addressed the problem immediately after the bill showed up on his desk. A veto would have put the ball squarely in the GOP court: “Take out that bit of late-night, offending language about the auditor’s office and I’ll sign the bill,” the governor could have said.

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But he didn’t. The best the governor and supporters of state Auditor Rebecca Otto can manage by way of an explanation is to say that Dayton signed the bill with the “understanding” that the language, which allows all counties to hire private auditors rather than use the services of the state auditor’s office, would be removed from the bill during a special session. 

But did anybody besides the governor have this “understanding?” Was the governor really that naive? It would be very surprising if that were the case — for all of his style limitations, Dayton is not a gullible pol. Few, if any, governors have understood the intricacies and minutiae of legislation so well as Dayton and his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith. 

Predictably, his actions around the bill and the auditor provision have led to all sorts of Machiavellian scuttlebutt: that Dayton knew what he was doing; that by signing the bill he was dissing Otto, who has political enemies on the Iron Range (a Dayton base). That, despite later standing by her side, Dayton wanted to weaken Otto as a potential DFL gubernatorial candidate three years from now, when the governor wants Tina Smith at the top of the ticket.

Otto is probably the most touchy-feely politician in St. Paul. But don’t let the hugs fool you. She will remember each slight, and she does not take defeat kindly. Already she has made it clear that she’s ready to go to court to undo the actions taken by the Legislature and the governor that took power from her office. This little sideshow is not going to go away.

As for Dayton, it’s worth remembering that for all that he appeared to lose heading into the special session, he managed to score several wins amid the vetoes and bluster — gains that that in most cases didn’t make headlines.  

As an example, one of the late-night hassles on the final night of the regular session involved the jobs and energy bill, which contained language that would have given a cross-section of companies doing business in Minnesota utility rate reductions. Dayton vetoed the bill. His fix on that aspect of the bill calls for the reductions to be limited to two troubled Minnesota industries: wood products and mining. He also demanded — and received — additional funds for people with disabilities to find work.

Another of his big “wins” in setting the parameters of the special session was in the environment bill. He gave up the longstanding Citizen Review board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. But he got language supporting his believe in “buffers” around all state waterways, plus elimination of language in an agriculture-environment bill that would have diminished consequences for polluters.

And don’t forget, he also got a pretty weighty public-works bill — $373 million — in a year when Republican legislators had said they would oppose all bonding.

Mostly, though, this period of time between the end of the regular session and the start of the special session has been about bluffs and tough talk. In those areas, Dayton looked bad because he wanted stuff. The GOP didn’t. 

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In the end, Republicans got a few chuckles at the governor’s expense. But this is a legislative session that neither Republicans nor DFLers should feel proud of. In a year with a large surplus and a general consensus that it was a “year of transportation,” this collection of politicians couldn’t figure out a way to fix a pothole.

So while Dayton may not have gotten his Cadillac, he did manage to get some rust coating and a spare tire for his new Chevy.