Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said Wednesday they were close to striking a deal that would settle a festering dispute over the governor's recent pay raises for his agency commissioners.
Talks over those pay raises blew up last week between fellow DFLers Bakk and Dayton, who called the Senate majority leader "conniving" and a backstabber who had lost his trust.
Daudt, a Republican, has apparently been acting as an intermediary of sorts between the two DFLers; Daudt and Dayton met Wednesday morning at the governor's residence, and Daudt and Bakk have also been in touch in recent days. The goal has been agreeing on a budget deficiency bill that would include some sort of provision responding to Dayton's commissioner pay hikes, which have drawn the ire of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
"The governor is eager to get the focus of the session back to the priorities of Minnesotans," spokesman Linden Zakula said. "To that end, he is working with House and Senate leadership to pass the deficiency bill and bring the salary dispute to an end."
The budget deficiency bill contains about $16 million for several state agency that need small cash infusions to reach the June 30 end of the state's fiscal year. But it got wrapped up in the pay raise dispute after Bakk led an effort in the Senate to delay the pay raises until July 1.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Monday sought to downplay his public dispute with Gov. Mark Dayton, who last week criticized his fellow DFLer as "conniving" and a "backstabber."
"If the governor wants to make it personal, he can," Bakk said Monday, in his first substantial public comments since Dayton's surprise blowup last week. "But I'm not going to get into a tit for tat, personal attacks back and forth. It's just not my style."
Standing before a mass of reporters and cameras after a Senate floor session, Bakk, DFL-Cook, did show some umbrage at the governor's suggestion he can't be trusted. "I've built a pretty strong image around here of being someone who's candid and honest," Bakk said.
The relationship between the two powerful DFLers, never too warm, soured in a big way after Dayton's recent decision to hike pay for 23 of his cabinet officers by as much as $35,000 a year. In total the raises amount to about $800,000 a year in additional state spending, and Dayton got the authority to make them from a 2013 law change that Bakk and other DFLers backed.
Last week, in the face of harsh criticism from Republicans over the raises, Bakk successfully pushed a Senate floor amendment to delay the raises until July 1. That prompted Dayton's open ire, apparently because the governor believed he had an agreement with Bakk to resolve the matter a different way.
Bakk said the day before the Senate vote, he laid out for Dayton several possible scenarios for how the Senate would respond to the pay raises.
"The governor wasn't asked to pick one of the options that I laid out to him," Bakk said. But he took exception to Dayton's description that he was "blindsided."
"I think that's incorrect," Bakk said. He said he believes the salary increases will probably prove to be justified, but he thinks Dayton might have considered making them in three smaller steps rather than all at once.
Last week, Dayton said he would no longer deal with Bakk one-on-one. Bakk sought to minimize the ramifications of that in relation to the DFL's ability to pursue an ambitious legislative agenda this year.
"My office has already had a couple conversations with his office over the last couple days. We'll see where it goes from there," Bakk said.
The pay raise fight is now enmeshed with a stopgap spending bill moving through the legislative process. With the pay raise delay attached to the Senate's version of that bill, the focus now shifts to the state House which could act on the matter this week. Republicans who now hold the House majority have been highly critical of the raises, but Dayton has threatened to veto the stopgap bill if it includes the pay raise delay.
Dayton, who made a brief appearance in the Capitol on Monday, told reporters he had little more to say about the dustup for the time being.
"We both have a job to do for the people of Minnesota and it's imperative we do that job constructively together, and that's my expectation," Dayton said. But asked if his issues with Bakk could be settled, Dayton responded, "I don't know."
(This post has been updated)
The two most powerful DFLers at the state Capitol had a bitter, public falling-out on Thursday as Gov. Mark Dayton accusing Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of "stabbing me in the back" amid an ongoing controversy over pay raises for state agency commissioners.
That came hours after the DFL-led Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to delay those salary hikes until July 1.
Dayton's rebuke of Bakk at a late afternoon news conference was unusually harsh. It followed Bakk's successful charge on the Senate floor earlier in the day to delay until July 1 Dayton's recent raises, which total $800,000 in additional pay per year to his 23 cabinet officers.
Dayton said he was strongly opposed to delaying the raises, and also said Bakk's maneuver came without warning.
"I'm very disappointed because I thought my relationship with Senator Bakk has always been positive and professional," Dayton said at an afternoon news conference. "I certainly learned a brutal lesson today that I can't trust him, can't believe what he says to me, and that he connives behind my back."
Through a spokeswoman, Bakk released a statement declining further comment except to suggest that he believed Dayton misunderstood their discussions about the pay issue.
Dayton's raises, which total about $800,000 in additional state spending per year, "most likely are warranted," Bakk said in a Senate floor speech. "But I think the challenge is, those of us in the Legislature and the public haven't had the opportunity to have a discussion about how pay has lagged for these department heads."
Under Bakk's amendment, which senators attached to a stopgap spending measure, Dayton would regain the authority to dole out the raises on July 1.
"Might he do it differently? That's yet to be seen," Bakk said.
Bakk's amendment passed 63-2, with just two DFL senators dissenting: Patricia Torres Ray of Minneapolis and Sandra Pappas of St. Paul. Republicans backed Bakk's move, but were unsuccessful in passing a more aggressive amendment that would have yanked the pay raises and Dayton's authority to make them entirely.
"I don't see why anybody in this body would not want to reassert our legislative authority," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville.
House Republicans have also sought to undermine the pay raises in recent days, with that body's version of the stopgap spending bill also including a provision subtracting money from several agency budgets that's equal to the amount those department commissioners got in original pay.
Dayton said if the House adopts the Senate changes to the stopgap spending bill, he will veto it.
Dayton has bristled at House Republican criticism of the raises, noting numerous House employees make similar salaries. He has defended the raises as necessary to attract top talent to his administration.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk expressed what he called "reservations" Wednesday about the size of pay increases that Gov. Mark Dayton, his fellow DFLer, recently granted to his state agency commissioners.
"I share the concern to retain and recruit exceptional talent for our state workforce, and while these increases may be warranted, I would prefer an incremental and measured implementation," Bakk said in a prepared statement.
For several days Bakk, DFL-Cook, had declined comment on the brewing dispute between Dayton and House Republicans over the governor's move to boost pay for commissioners by a total of about $800,000 a year, with some commissioners seeing their yearly salary raised by $35,000. But Senate Democrats discussed the raises at a caucus meeting late Wednesday night, after which Bakk released his statement to reporters.
Bakk said he agrees with Dayton that "state salaries should be more proportionate to the private sector pay scale. However, while I respect the Governor's discretion granted by Article III of the Minnesota Constitution, I have reservations about the size of the commissioner's salary increases."
The pay fight is likely to come up on the Senate floor Thursday during a planned debate over a stopgap spending bill. In the House, Republicans attached a provision to their own version of that bill that tries to block Dayton's raises from several of the commissioners. However, it's far from certain that legislators have the authority to undo Dayton's raises.
Dayton and House Republicans have traded jabs over the pay boosts in recent days. While Republicans have called them excessive, Dayton accused Republicans of hypocrisy by noting that a handful of state House employees at similar pay levels have also received recent raises.
The Republican chairwoman of the House State Government Finance Committee has invited Gov. Mark Dayton before the panel to defend about $800,000 in yearly pay raises he granted to his cabinet commissioners.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, sent the letter to Dayton on Tuesday morning. She offered him the opportunity to testify before the committee on Thursday or the following Tuesday. In a letter the day before to lawmakers spelling out his reasons for raising commissioner pay, Dayton had offered to explain his decision to lawmakers in person although he did not specifically offer to testify before a committee.
Dayton responded later in the day that he would be happy to meet with Republicans in a public forum to discuss the issue, but deferred on appearing before the full committee.
Dayton and House Republicans have been tussling over his pay increases in recent days, which saw several of his commissioners get pay hikes as high as $35,000 per year. Dayton said it's needed in order to compete for top talent with the private sector.
A law passed by the Legislature in 2013 granted Dayton authority to make the pay adjustments without further input from lawmakers, but House Republicans have begun pushing legislation meant to block the raises and withdraw the governor's authority to make them.
Even if House Republicans pass legislation to interfere with the raises, it would have to be approved by the DFL-controlled Senate. A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Tuesday that Bakk was declining comment on the matter until after a Senate DFL caucus meeting on Wednesday afternoon.