After a 90-minute meeting between Minnesota’s top political leaders in St. Paul on Wednesday, Rep. Paul Thissen had had enough.
In front of a group of reporters, the Democratic House minority leader launched into an attack on Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, saying the majority party was blocking weeks-long negotiations over a potential special session of the Legislature by not bringing new ideas to the table.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton already clearly laid out his demands on everything from new spending and bonding proposals to light-rail funding, Thissen said, but Republicans had yet to make any offers in return.
“We had another conversation; it was not productive from my perspective,” Thissen said. “If we are going to have a productive conversation going forward, I think it’s incumbent on the Republicans to come back with an actual, concrete counter offer.”
But things look a lot different when you’re in the majority.
When Sen. Tom Bakk stepped up to the microphone, the DFL Senate majority leader struck a more positive note than Thissen.
“I wouldn’t describe today’s meeting as nonproductive, but less productive than I would have liked to travel down from Lake Vermillion for, but I’m still hopeful,” he said. “I think the speaker’s tone was a little bit better today than it was last week.”
Playing the bad cops
Wednesday’s meeting was only the latest in the stilted, slow-moving negotiations between top legislative leaders and the governor since the Legislature adjourned in mid-May.
In the final hours of the regular session, Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate agreed to pass a $1 billion bonding bill and a one-time influx of cash for a handful of transportation projects around the state — a deal that put aside a long-term funding solution for transportation, which lawmakers debated all session.
The proposal blew up in the final minutes of session, largely over whether or not it included a way to raise funds for light-rail projects. And shortly after session ended, Dayton also pocket-vetoed a $260 million tax bill that included a major drafting error. Both proposals, plus a new list of spending and bonding demands from Dayton, are all on the table for a possible special session.
The two minority leaders in the Minnesota Legislature — Thissen in the House and Republican David Hann in the Senate — weren’t deeply involved in end-of-session negotiations, but they have emerged as critical players in any possible special session.
Dayton is requiring them to sign off before he agrees to call lawmakers back, which has allowed the two minority leaders to play the bad cop to their majority counterparts, employing far more partisan rhetoric in trying to drive a hard bargain for any comprehensive deal.
After meeting with DFLers Wednesday, for example, Daudt said they had a good conversation but some issues remained, including a lingering “standoff” over how to fund light-rail projects. But Bakk painted a different picture, describing Hann as taking on a “confrontational role” in the meeting.
Hann said the long list of new spending and bonding demanded by Dayton before he’ll call a special session is not workable. The governor already signed a $182 million budget bill, said Hann, which he thought was the final compromise on that issue.
“Now we have another spending manifesto from the governor?” Hann said Wednesday. “They don’t need our votes to pass a spending bill, but as part of a compromise we all have to agree to, it’s going to be tough sledding.”
Though they represent opposing political parties, Hann and Thissen will face the same challenge on the campaign trail this fall. With all 201 House and Senate seats on the ballot, both are charged with helping their sides take back the majority in their respective chambers.
In those roles, the minority leaders will likely go on the offensive during the campaign season, enumerating all the things their opponents in the majority didn’t get done at the Legislature.
At the same time, the majority leaders — Bakk and Daudt — want to be able to hit the campaign trail this fall with a long list of accomplishments. Infrastructure improvements and road and bridge projects were supposed to be a big part of their pitch to voters.
Stark differences between DFL leaders
Yet the differences between the DFL’s two legislative leaders go beyond campaign strategies, and they are far starker than any divide between the Republican leaders. Part of the reason is personality. Bakk is a carpenter from the Iron Range with a booming voice and knack for cutting deals. Thissen is an attorney from Minneapolis with degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, a policy wonk who is part of the progressive wing of the DFL Party.
Near the end of the press conference, a reporter asked if a deal on funding the controversial Southwest Light Rail Line, which Republicans oppose, was the biggest sticking point in getting a final agreement on special session.
“I …,” Bakk started to say before Thissen jumped in and cut him off.
“No way,” Thissen said, while Bakk stepped back, surprised.
“It’s not the single biggest sticking point, and that’s absolutely clear. The Republicans want that to be it. I’ll take that on.”