Steering the State Capitol on Tom Bakk time

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2014 - 6:44 PM

The Senate majority leader isn’t facing an election. Perhaps that explains his strategies. Perhaps there’s more to it. With the senator from Cook, it isn’t always easy to tell.

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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says transportation funding and reform of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program are key issues for the next session.

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No matter the result of this fall’s election, DFLers will still control the Minnesota Senate in 2015 and, barring an earthquake in the DFL firmament, Tom Bakk will still be majority leader. The Senate’s 39-28 DFL tilt is fixed through the 2016 election.

Bakk was given to frequent mentions of that fact during the lawmaking session that ended nine days ago. Sometimes — to the irritation of House DFLers and Gov. Mark Dayton’s team — he would allow that he could be the sole survivor among this year’s all-DFL leadership triumvirate. Listeners would walk away wondering whether he was predicting or even rooting for that result.

My take: No, on both counts. Bakk said those things in the context of explanations for the Senate majority’s differences with Dayton and/or the DFL House on a variety of issues.

The Senate’s four-year term, coinciding in this decade with presidential but not gubernatorial elections, gives the smaller chamber a longer-term perspective on state policy than the House and a measure of independence from the governor. Those differences are behind Senate decisions to favor a larger budget reserve fund, some ill-advised business sales taxes, a smaller 2014 spending bill, a gas tax increase, reform of the state’s Sex Offender Program, slower growth in the minimum wage, and firmer financial footing for MinnesotaCare in 2016 and beyond.

Bakk was trying to convey the notion that this biennium’s all-DFL leadership lineup was an interlude of potentially fleeting sunshine, as in, “Make hay while the sun shines.” He was trying to summon in others a sense of urgency — I think.

But with Bakk, it isn’t always that simple — whatever “it” is on any given day. Twenty years in the thick of things at the Legislature and prior work as a carpenters’ union business agent have made him a formidable negotiator with a propensity for sly complexity. At nearly 60, he’s a master at holding his cards close to the vest.

Guessing his cards and his plan for playing them is a popular pastime among the Capitol crowd. No similar speculation attends pronouncements from either Dayton or House Speaker Paul Thissen. Both are more direct by nature and more transparent in their approach to lawmaking.

Neither would be likely to, say, insert authorization for a new Senate office building into an omnibus tax bill, or structure it to avert any need for a clean full-House vote on the project. Or to delay a popular tax-cutting bill for said building’s sake — if that indeed was what Bakk was trying to do back in March. Or was he trying to get control of that tax bill, so that he could stuff it with ingredients from the Senate’s policy cupboard, like gift and estate tax relief and a bigger reserve?

Regardless of his intentions, the state’s reserve fund is $150 million bigger than it was two months ago. The gift tax is gone. Heavy equipment is about to rip up the parking lot across University Avenue from the Capitol.

Bakk is effective, and he’ll be back. That’s why I was glad to catch up with the senator from Cook last week before he vanished into Canada for his customary post-session fishing session. What’s on his cards for 2015?

He was eager to talk about two things — more transportation funding and reform of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Transportation is “one of the most critical issues facing our state,” and the likelihood that the Sex Offender Program will be found unconstitutional in federal district court means “we are going to have to find some less restrictive ways to deal with those people,” he said.

Probably not coincidentally, both are matters on which the Senate approved strong bills in 2013, to be met with disinterest and delay elsewhere in the Capitol. That backdrop puts Bakk and the Senate in a good light among editorial writers, and the House and Dayton on the defensive.

Vaguer were comments about his desire to spread K-12 education dollars more reliably and fairly to all parts of the state. Can that be done without raising homeowner property taxes, which DFL voters detest?

He’s also interested in bolder steps to improve public buildings and infrastructure. But will that mean bonding less and paying cash instead, as this year’s Legislature did? Is that fair to today’s taxpayers and to the other services that rely on state cash?

The answers weren’t clear. But Bakk’s awareness of the political calendar is.

“I am going to try very hard to get something done on transportation,” he said. “If we don’t get it done in ’15, then ’16 is an election year, then we’re out to ’17 and who knows …” he said, his voice trailing off.

Here’s a stab at interpretation: In 2015, the Senate’s previously longer-range view will have shortened to match the House’s. Their majorities may not wear the same party label, but at least they will share the same time horizon. For a brief moment, their views might align. Then in 2016, election-year paralysis will set in. By 2017, a whole new crowd could be in charge at the Capitol, with unpredictable results.

I think Bakk is still trying to gin up a sense of urgency on a few key issues. Maybe he thinks that will help elect his fellow DFLers in November, or help whomever is elected decide to follow the Senate’s lead next time. But maybe he’s sharing an almost-60-year-old’s awareness that opportunities to make a positive difference don’t last forever.

 

Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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  • Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has been a presence at the State Capitol for 20 years, serving first in the House.

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