Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, in their first public appearance since a major blowup over commissioner salaries, smiled broadly and threw arms around each other in a show of unity Thursday as they advocated for a transportation package that would raise gas taxes to pay for roads, bridges and transit.
“I want to hire him,” Dayton said of Bakk.
“Let’s get a photo op for all of you,” said Bakk, wrapping his significant paw around Dayton’s shoulder as the two normally stone-faced men smiled while cameras rat-tat-tatted.
Dayton and Bakk have long been the best of frenemies, joined by political necessity but often divided in outlook and temperament. The DFL veterans come from different wings of the party — Dayton a wealthy metro progressive, Bakk an Iron Range union stalwart — and despite some shared policy goals this legislative session, their differences exploded into public view in a fracas last month over steep pay raises that Dayton gave to his commissioners.
Thursday’s joint appearance was designed to signal a united front against House Republicans, who have said they will not consider the wholesale gas tax increase that underpins Dayton’s multiyear proposal to rebuild roads and bridges statewide.
But beneath the show of comity, all signs point to more division between Bakk and Dayton in the weeks leading up to mid-May’s adjournment. During that time, the two men will need to find a way to cut a deal with House Republicans on the state’s two-year budget, a $1.9 billion projected surplus, transportation funding, education and other divisive issues.
On several key items, Dayton and Bakk stand on opposite sides of a chasm, often involving one of them protecting the prerogatives of his respective branch of government.
Bakk said Monday that he supports the idea of a “Legislative Budget Office” that would provide an alternative to the cost estimates of proposed legislation, currently produced by Dayton’s Minnesota Management and Budget. This seemingly arcane proposal would give legislators, including Bakk, more sovereignty in the face of this and any future governor’s powerful budget office.
Dayton bristled earlier this week, calling the proposal “duplicative” and “unproductive” and an attack on state workers. “To impugn the integrity of these individuals, I think, is very, very unfair and totally unwarranted,” he said.
Bakk also recently said he expects the Senate to pass a bill he supports to bar the sale of lottery tickets from ATMs, gas pumps and Internet sites. Dayton vetoed a similar bill last year, but legislators contend that the State Lottery overstepped its bounds with these new sales. Dayton has promised another veto and says the legislation is a gift to gambling interests that view the lottery as a competitor and who write big checks to political campaigns.
Finally, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing bills that would weaken Dayton’s agencies and give the Legislature more say in regulation, which could be especially important in environmental issues such as wild rice sulfate standards and other water quality rules. Bakk is known to keep his views private to strengthen his negotiating hand, so it’s not clear whether he would support these measures, but his Range and other rural DFL allies are supportive. Bakk is not close to the state’s environmental movement, having previously supported a repeal of the cap on carbon emissions, among other things.
Dayton, meanwhile, vetoed a 2012 bill that would have inserted the Legislature more directly into the regulatory process, and another showdown seems likely on this front.
On Thursday, however, Dayton and Bakk looked happy to stand against House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown — at least on the transportation issue.
Dayton and Bakk said a viable plan requires new, dedicated revenue. Bakk said he would not allow a dime of the general fund surplus to be used for transportation because of the risk of a recession that could reduce revenue, forcing transportation to compete with education and other priorities in leaner budget times.
Daudt released a statement after the Dayton-Bakk event, saying Democrats had “doubled down on their unpopular plan to raise the gas tax and take more money out of the pockets of hardworking Minnesotans.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.