Minnesota cage match, 2017 edition

In June and July 2011 Minnesota-based Governor Mark Dayton engaged in a budget battle with the Minnesota legislature, both houses of which were then controlled by Republicans. Governor Dayton presided over a three-week government shutdown during which inessential offices were closed. We covered the showdown in a series that I called “Minnesota cage match.” I interviewed the Senate Majority leader during the imbroglio and provided relevant background in “Amy Koch: Inside the cage match.”

The 2011 battle was fought within traditional boundaries. We are now in the midst of a variation in which Governor Dayton has taken the battle beyond the boundaries. It is bizarre. In this year’s cage match, Governor Dayton has jumped his opponents from the top of the turnbuckle. That should be an automatic disqualification.

I’m not sure that many Minnesotans are paying attention. Yet even aside from the inherent entertainment value (if you are outside Minnesota), this is a story that deserves national attention.

Now in his final term as governor, Mark Dayton is at the heart of the story. He remains a man of many moods, not all of them conducive to playing well with his political opponents.

Once again the Minnesota House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. Once again the legislative session was dominated by contentious budget, tax and other issues that required negotiations with Dayton and his commissioners. Their resolution required a special session of the legislature for a few days late last month. The package of budget, tax and state government bills that finally passed reflected compromises on the part of all participants including Dayton and his commissioners.

Dayton demands that Republicans revisit his selected issues on his terms after they have given ground elsewhere to arrive at the bills that were sent to him for his signature. I don’t think they are inclined to make fools of themselves.

Governor Dayton signed all of the bills. He could have vetoed any of them. Even though he professed extreme unhappiness with certain items, he signed the bills (including the tax bill that he says in the letter he would let take effect without his signature, because it would have effectively been vetoed without his signature).

As a result of his unhappiness with certain items, however, Governor Dayton exercised his authority to veto budgetary line items to wipe out the funding of the legislative branch. The legislature’s current funding expires on July 1. After that it will be running for a while on fumes (i.e., reserves on hand). Dayton explains himself in the letter posted here.

In the letter Dayton describes one provision of the special session state government finance bill as “treachery.” Dayton to the contrary notwithstanding, however, the provision was included in every draft of the bill shared with the governor’s administration. The bill was made publicly available online at 6:00 a.m. on May 24 and was sent directly to the governor’s senior staff prior to being made public. The legislature allowed for public review of the bill for more than 36 hours prior to passage on May 25 at 8:00 p.m. In addition to the ample time the governor had to review the bill, Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans and the governor’s senior staff discussed the bill language with legislative staff on numerous occasions and never raised this provision as a point of concern.

Dayton’s decision to strike legislative funding is another matter. The governor can’t do that, can he? As of his last word in public earlier this week, he wants to talk about it.

Dayton seems to have elicited the Republicans’ fighting spirit. In his daily newsletter Star Tribune legislative reporter Patrick Coolican quotes House Ways and Means Committee chairman Jim Knoblach: “It’s an embarrassment for [Dayton] to have this idea that we’re going to agree to what he wants in exchange for getting paid. Hell will freeze over before I agree to any kind of deal like that.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader have Paul Gazelka have retained counsel to contest Dayton’s action in court. The lawsuit should be filed within a day or two.

Here’s one thought that may not be too far from the mind of the judge or judges to whom the issue is remitted. If the governor can zero out the legislature he must also be able to zero out the judiciary at the same time, leaving only one man standing. As with so much that is hidden in plain sight here, this is one local story to which attention must be paid.

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