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The 6 biggest Minnesota political stories of 2015

With no elections, the year in Minnesota politics was defined by a series of small-bore issues, from pay raises to office space. 

Speaker Kurt Daudt adjourning the Minnesota House in May.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

It’s hard to know exactly how to characterize Minnesota’s biggest political developments in 2015. A divided Legislature managed to do very little last session outside of a state budget, and there was no election to frame the year in politics.

But there were a handful of notable distractions during the year — commissioner pay raises, office space squabbles and and special sessions, to name a few — that managed to suck up most of the oxygen in St. Paul. Here are the top six political stories of 2015:

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1. Commissioner pay raises
Every year, there’s one political story that sneaks up on everyone: reporters, legislators, even the people who are at the center of it all. This year it was DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s move at the start of session to give more than two dozen members of his Cabinet a pay raise. Republicans in control of the House professed to be shocked by the move, and immediately fired back, calling on the governor’s commissioners — some of whom were getting a raise — to testify in committee about the pay hikes. Senate Democrats also voted to suspend the raises until the issue could be discussed further. Even Dayton was surprised by all the fury over the move — legislators changed the law in 2013 to give him authority to increase the pay of his commissioners. More than anything, he was surprised that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a putative politically ally, voted to suspend the raises. That led to one of the single most memorable moments in Dayton’s tenure as governor — not to mention this MinnPost headline — when he called a sudden press conference to call his fellow Democrat a backstabber. Things haven’t been quite the same between the two. In the end, legislators and the governor came to an agreement that gave him a one-day window in July to reinstate the raises (which he did) but took the power of pay raises out of the governor’s hands in the future. 

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk

2. Bakk in the middle
Bakk didn’t just alienate the governor last session, he also earned the ire of a large, metro-heavy portion of his Senate DFL caucus over a handful of last-minute deals made with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. Bakk said he needed to compromise with Republicans to pass the budget bill, but some of those deals nixed certain environmental protections, including a longstanding citizens board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Enraged by the move, some Democrats tried to amend the bill in a one-day special session, threatening to upend the whole thing. The move failed, but after session adjourned, Bakk gave senators a chance to take a vote of no confidence in him. The vote never happened, but some members say assurances were made by Bakk that things would be different in 2016. Stay tuned.

3. Messy end of session
The last day of session is always chaotic. It’s sort of an unofficial tradition in state politics that legislators push off most of the major work until the very end and spend the final minutes and seconds pushing bills through. Democracy is messy, right? That’s what people say. Still, even longtime veterans of the Capitol’s hallowed halls say this year was worst than most. Bakk and Daudt didn’t strike a budget deal until 72 hours before lawmakers were set to adjourn. That was followed by nonstop, dead-of-night committee hearings to draft multibillion-dollar budget bills. Some weren’t ready until the final minute of session, including a 90-plus-page jobs and economic development bill in the House. It was passed with moments to spare and half of the chamber standing up and screaming. Some are calling for a few changes to that process, but time will tell. Old habits die hard. That’s also something people say. 

4. No tax cuts, no transportation
In all the chaos at the end of session, the two biggest priorities for both parties coming into session were left behind. For Republicans, that meant saying goodbye to the ironically dubbed Don’t Stop Believin’ Tax Bill of 2015. For Democrats, it meant waving bye-bye to a proposed gas tax increase to fund billions of dollars in transportation needs. What did they get in lieu of their priorities? Last minute budget deals, a messy special session and lots of hard feelings. But at least there’s that $1.2 billion budget surplus waiting for them next year. Do over?

The side of the building facing the state Capitol and University Avenue.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
The side of the building facing the state Capitol and University Avenue.

5. Office space
A tremendous amount of ink and political capital was spent this year over office suites, fabric swatches and expensive doors. It started earlier this year with squabbles over where members of the House and Senate would office after the multiyear restoration of the state Capitol is complete. Democrats criticized Daudt in August when emails showed his staff discussed using contingency funds for the restoration to add historical touches for office space intended for the House majority. More recently, Senate Republicans are refusing to move into a brand new Senate office building next door to the Capitol. And with Senate Republicans promising to bring the new building up on the campaign trail next fall, it sounds like office space could be one of the biggest political stories of 2016, too. 

6. Special session mania
Got an idea that legislators could take up in a special session? Throw it on the pile of untouched topics that have so far been considered. First was the walleye shortage in Lake Mille Lacs, then it was compliance with the federal Real ID Act. Now lawmakers are debating whether to hold a special session to extend unemployment benefits to out-of-work miners, while also starting to tackle the state’s widening racial inequalities. No special sessions have been called since June, but give it time. There are still three months to go until lawmakers come back to St. Paul.