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What is Mark Dayton getting out of the special session?

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

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.

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.

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. 

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.   

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/11/2015 - 11:41 am.

    Amazing, that Grow can write this entire piece and never mention the name Bakk. Without DFL support from Senate leadership, Dayton was on his own and thus much weaker than a DFL governor should have to have been. And he gave up a lot to get his session agreed to (if, indeed, he has). A LOT.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/11/2015 - 01:44 pm.

      Really is past the time that Tom Bakk should have stepped down from a leadership position.

      Connie Sullivan is right. With a leader worth something, the whole session would have turned out differently.

      I guess every Minnesota political party has their problems. Minor parties have no power and the power the major parties have is corrupted by one thing or another besides big campaign dollars.

      Republicans have more of a cross to bear/bare than most others with all the religious fundamentalism in the ranks and hocus pocus takes on economics to get punny with a double entendre.

      But Democrats in Minnesota have it bad. Iron rangers will sell their souls for trade jobs, farm districts will go whichever way Big Ag tells them, and the rest chase their tails in efforts to show various constituencies they are on their side (very multifaceted folks).

      Statesmanship, or the possibility of statesmanship completely left the Republican Party decades ago, but it ain’t very apparent in the DFL, not anymore, and Bakk may be a big reason for that fact.

      Ceding the job of getting DFLers in line with this bad, bad deal for the special session to Gov. Dayton, is just one more reason that he should step down and let someone with integrity lead in the Senate.

      Maybe Bakk should give up public service all together.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 06/11/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    Couple things.1. “Few, if

    Couple things.

    1. “Few, if any, governors have understood the intricacies and minutiae of legislation so well as Dayton and his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith.” That’s a laughable assertion given this governor’s record of being surprised at some of the laws he’s enacted.

    2. It’s not that the GOP didn’t want anything. Rather, it was smart enough to get most of its wants from the regular session.

    3. Tom Bakk is more or less governor right now.

    • Submitted by Lora Jones on 06/11/2015 - 03:05 pm.

      I hope that pleases Mr. Bakk

      Because a) he should be stripped of leadership and b) it’ll be a cold day in hell when he gets my backing for any nomination — and I go to the conventions.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/11/2015 - 03:32 pm.

      Bakk may think he is,

      Bakk may think he is or may one day be governor, but he is the real problem here and the only reason a special session was necessary.

      Without his confused demeanor and strange cadence of speech, Gov. Dayton might come off like Claude Rains’ character in Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!,”I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape,” and others).

      If Republicans get any more of what they want, our state will be sunk forever.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 06/11/2015 - 03:45 pm.

      I’d agree Kevin, except

      the results suggest Daudt is more or less Governor now.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/11/2015 - 10:21 pm.

      Oh really, the GOP got most of what it wanted?

      Like tax rebates? Lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations? And the biggest joke of all, what about their promises for benefits for out state MN like faster internet connections, improved roads, and housing? Nothing important is what the GOP actually accomplished

  3. Submitted by John Appelen on 06/11/2015 - 12:58 pm.

    Good summary, though I am curious what the GOP gave up and gained during these last minute negotiations.

    I mean as you said, “increase K-12 funding over the bill he originally vetoed by $125 million”.

    Which means that Ed MN and the establishment gets the money and us tax payers will not receive back $125,000,000.

    Anything else the tax payers lost in these dealings? Did any language that holds Ed MN and the establishment accountable for improving performance with that $125,000,000 make it into law? Anything that increases funding for charters to anywhere near what the status quo publics get? Anything for the unlucky kids, or did we just give the same questionable system more money for doing things the same way?

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/11/2015 - 01:16 pm.


    There is a petition at calling for Senator Bakk to resign as Majority Leader.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/11/2015 - 01:58 pm.


    Yes, it’s a complicated deal. I think one helpful think to understand is that Governor Dayton is largely alienated from the DFL and the DFL legislative party. By this, I don’t mean there is general hostility between the governor and the party, although I don’t see Bakk and Dayton grabbing a lot of beers together now that the session is pretty close to being over. It’s just that they have pursued very independent paths to get where they resulting in a gap between them which has never been effectively bridged. People like Sen. Bakk have their own agenda, one they are quite capable of pursuing on their own with little help from the governor. The governor also had his agenda, but to my way of thinking, he never did the heavy lifting needed to make it the legislature’s or the DFL majority’s agenda. He rolled it out late and he never made a very strong case for it. And the fact is, because of his political independence from the DFL and his lame duck status, he had few IOU’s to call in.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/11/2015 - 05:43 pm.

      Excellent Comment

      It is interesting how so many people here are blaming Bakk, and holding the Governor blameless. Personally I think the “Executive” in the State should be held accountable for ensuring the legislative troops of their Party were kept in line.

      I mean the DFL controlled Senate passed these bills that Dayton disagreed with, not Bakk.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/11/2015 - 10:14 pm.

        Why? Why do you think the executive branch is responsible for the legislative branch?

        Mr. Applelen, you are a caution.

        The crux of the last legislative session was arriving at a compromise that the executive would accept and that was the job of Bakk and of Daudt, not Dayton, although I find it impossible to hide my disappointment in our governor for all sorts of decisions and failures.

        There are plenty of things that I blame Dayton for–top of the list would be his blanket support of lousy stadium deals in my city of Minneapolis–and they are numerous, but the divisions of power in our government are clear. I blame him for not vetoing every damn bill, I suppose, but not for what the Legislature did.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/12/2015 - 09:13 pm.

          I disagree

          “crux of the last legislative session was arriving at a compromise that the executive would accept ”

          I believe their job is to reach the agreements that are best for Minnesota… And I think the Executive should be right in their arm twisting and lobbying for his agenda… Especially if it is very unique like his universal pre K plan.

          To have to veto this many bills means that the Governor was disconnected and/or had no control over the legislators in his party. If the GOP controlled both houses, it may make sense. But with the DFL owning the Senate, it is silly.

          It would have been like the Senate giving Obama a bunch of bills to veto when Harry was in charge. It just did not happen.

      • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/12/2015 - 11:17 am.

        Mr. Appelen seems not to have read the news that many DFL legislators voted for last-minute bills they had not read because their leadership in the legislature, particularly in the Senate, strongly told them, instructed them, to vote for them. They were lied to by Bakk and his staff, forced to vote sight-unseen on stuff, and there are lots of us out here who cannot believe the shenanigans of that Last Night and how good elected people got manhandled by leadership–not by the governor.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/12/2015 - 09:05 pm.

          Personal Responsibility

          “Forced to Vote” How exactly did someone do this?

          As far as I know they are all free to vote their conscience. But please feel free to blame the DFL Leader.

  6. Submitted by Michael Hess on 06/11/2015 - 02:23 pm.

    in the end..

    “But this is a legislative session that neither Republicans nor DFLers should feel proud of” – truer words were never written in regards to this year.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/12/2015 - 06:13 am.

    Dayton’s frustration is palpable. I mean, he’s made his demands clear; what part of unbound did the legislature not understand?

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/12/2015 - 07:43 am.

    What is Mark Dayton getting out of the special session?

    He can finally quit negotiating with himself.

  9. Submitted by Chad Quigley on 06/12/2015 - 03:05 pm.

    Bakk’s not the problem

    To all you saying Bakk has to go, you’re nuts just like the Governor. Bakk did what he was directed to do the whole session until there was about 2 weeks left and then ol’ googly eyes Dayton changed his mind on what was going to be a priority. Blame the knucklehead you elected twice for this mess, not the guy who was taking orders.
    You guys got to spend most of the $2 billion in outrageous additional taxes so you should be happy.

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