Could Sen. Tom Bakk’s tenure as state Senate Majority Leader be in doubt?
That’s the political buzz within DFL-oriented circles and blogs in the wake of what clearly was not a great session for the Cook DFLer.
Bakk is used to taking criticism from Republicans, but this time it’s members of his own party who have been directing fire his way, over a whole host of issues in which Bakk apparently aligned with House Republicans to undercut the wishes of his own DFL caucus and Gov. Mark Dayton. It’s hard to say exactly what Bakk was hoping to achieve during the session, but it’s pretty clear he has sacrificed his relationship with the governor in order to get there.
Bakk’s handling of the agriculture and environment budget bill and his insistence on including $7.2 million in a last-minute bonding bill for an underground parking ramp for 30 top state officials were just some of the items that left many Senate DFLers steaming at Bakk. The tab for the garage project comes to $240,000 per parking space, a bit north of what the average Minnesotan pays for a house. Bakk defended what was quickly dubbed the “garage-mahal,” suggesting that the current surface lot that provided parking for top state officials would mar the view from the Capitol and the new Senate Office Building. “That is not the visual I want,” Bakk said, as reported by the Star Tribune. He later added security concerns to the list of reasons for the new garage, but his proposal has been about as popular as poop in a punch bowl with most of his legislative colleagues.
And, according to the Star Tribune, Bakk was instrumental in stuffing a last-second provision into the state government operations bills that allows counties to bypass the state auditor and use private firms for their annual audits, despite strenuous objections from his caucus members. Bakk later told the Star Tribune that he opposed the measure, but was following the wishes of the Association of Minnesota Counties. That same organization told the Strib the issue had barely even been on their radar this session, which leaves many questioning whether Bakk is making up stories to cover what looks far more like a case of political payback. State Auditor Rebecca Otto, of course, has raised strong objections to copper-nickel mining in Bakk’s district. County audits provide a good chunk of the auditor’s annual budget, so allowing counties to go elsewhere would be a huge blow to the auditor’s office.
The maneuver incensed Gov. Dayton, who started his elective career as state auditor, and the issue has become a primary sticking point preventing a special session. And this year’s regular session was barely underway when Gov. Mark Dayton blasted Bakk in a press conference in which he accused the majority leader of stabbing him in the back over the issue of pay increases for state commissioners. While the two had patched things up, at least publicly, the end of session intrigue appears to have ripped the scab off that wound.
Bakk went into the session already weakened by the perception that his insistence on DFL backing for the lavish new Senate Office Building and its $76 million price tag is one of the reasons the DFL lost the House in 2014. Republicans had a field day with the issue during last fall’s campaign and many legislators believed it played a role in the loss of a number of rural DFL seats.
And Bakk didn’t help himself when he seemed to align with anti-environment Republicans in the House at the end of this session in an effort to force feed a grab bag of last-minute poison pills to his own caucus, as we reported last week. When his caucus rebelled, voting overwhelmingly against the agriculture and environment bill, Bakk relied on Republicans in the Senate to get the measure passed. Dayton, siding with the majority of Senate DFLers, vetoed the bill.
Those senators objected to the substance of many of the anti-environment provisions, but seemed most concerned about the inappropriateness of the process. Lawmaking is supposed to happen in the sunshine, with bills introduced and aired in public committee hearings first, before possibly being voted upon by the full House or Senate. Similar bills are then reconciled in joint House-Senate conference committees and both bodies vote on the final bills that emerge from that process.
But that’s not how things went this year. Many of the more onerous provisions in the final ag and environment bill were added in the final hours, without ever having been introduced in a committee or even subject to a vote in either body. Some Senate DFLers believe Bakk undermined the desires of his own caucus to advantage industry on the Iron Range and other special interests. That might be just fine with his local constituents, but it’s the kind of thing that can cause a legislative caucus to lose confidence in their majority leader. Bakk, last week, sent a letter to his caucus members that attempted to soothe the tensions that built up over the session, but it remains unclear whether that will be enough to ward off a challenge to his leadership.
The discontent, of course, isn’t limited to Bakk’s colleagues in St. Paul. Among his own constituents, there’s general unhappiness over Bakk’s push to expand the authority of school districts to enact excess operating levies without a public vote.
Bakk did so to rescue the St. Louis County School District, which stood no chance of passing an operating levy in the wake of their highly controversial school district restructuring. The district has since maxed out both levy options and the extra money has helped the district turn its budget fix around. That’s good news for the district, but most taxpayers, who have watched with increasing frustration as their school taxes have risen year after year, aren’t happy about it— and most of them know who to “thank” for it.
I wouldn’t suggest that Bakk is vulnerable to a local political challenge, but given the generally fiscally-moderate nature of his constituents, pouring tens of millions into fancy new digs for senators and underground parking facilities at the Capitol and giving school districts a freer hand to raise taxes is likely to be seen as at least a bit out of touch with the common folk back home in the district.
That’s been a frequent complaint that I’ve heard, and it’s one that is shared by some of Bakk’s Senate colleagues, who have variously described him as “imperious” and “autocratic.” Some blogs, such as the popular Bluestem Prairie or Mn Progressive Project, describe discontent over Bakk as widespread. That may or may not be the case, but it certainly will make for some potentially interesting political observing in the months to come. Stay tuned to this story…