ROCHESTER – Facing a possible court battle with the Legislature, Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday defended his veto of legislative funding even as he prodded Republicans anew to revisit a handful of spending and policy disputes.
At news conferences in Rochester and Mankato, the DFL governor sought to explain why he eliminated the Legislature’s operating budget last week. Though the legislative session ended late last month with the two-year state budget finalized, Dayton now wants Republicans to come back in special session and undo several changes he finds objectionable — most notably some of the $650 million in tax cuts that were the centerpiece of the GOP’s agenda in St. Paul.
“It’s about a tax bill that will cost our state treasury over $5 billion in revenue over the next 10 years,” Dayton said at Rochester City Hall. “It would be a catastrophic effect on our fiscal security.”
By lining out legislative funding from the state budget, Dayton picked a fight with lawmakers that could linger for months. Republican legislative leaders are planning a lawsuit in response, with the prospect of 201 lawmakers and several hundred legislative employees losing pay and benefits later this summer.
In a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, Dayton said he’d like to avoid a constitutional confrontation with the legislative branch. He invited legislative leaders to meet and negotiate on several provisions he called “destructive to the well-being of Minnesotans.” In addition to the tax cuts, Dayton wants to revisit a provision that could make it tougher for immigrants here illegally to obtain a driver’s license, as well as changes to teacher licensing procedures.
“I share in his desire to find a way to resolve this without going to court,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “I however don’t have an interest in changing things that were already agreed to and passed and signed into law.”
Daudt said to expect a lawsuit soon: “As soon as the attorney is ready to file, we’ll file.”
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he would be willing to listen to Dayton’s perspective but that “the Senate is not interested in reopening issues that have already been signed into law and were the result of compromise with the governor.”
Dayton initially agreed to the changes he now wants to revisit, and signed a series of budget bills last week knowing those elements were included. But Dayton contends that lawmakers forced his hand on the tax-cut package by including operating money for the state Department of Revenue inside the tax bill; Dayton later said he signed that, and the other budget bills, in order to avoid the state government shutdown that would have ensued without a new budget in place.
At his appearance in Rochester, Dayton was joined by Rep. Tina Liebling, a local DFLer. She said Republicans didn’t play fair by explicitly threatening Department of Revenue funding, since it’s the agency that collects the tax money that keeps government operating.
“We just cannot have a threat to shut down the entire state, and that is what it is when you threaten to defund the Department of Revenue,” Liebling said. Daudt said Republicans used that maneuver knowing it was possible Dayton would veto the tax bill, but did not anticipate his veto of legislative funding.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said she thinks the debates that Dayton wants to renew should wait for the 2018 legislative session. She also said the DFL governor is not solely responsible for a dispute that’s looking more and more intractable.
“I would say most of our constituents see this as a tit-for-tat issue with very high stakes,” Nelson said, “and I think it’s disappointing all the way around, frankly.”
The friction between Dayton and Republicans marred what was almost a relatively peaceful ending to the Minnesota legislative session. At a Panera Bread near downtown Rochester, a group of men having lunch said they support Dayton’s strategy.
“It’s a unique way he approached the issue,” said one of the men, Duane Hoven. “He’s opened the door, and I’m hopeful things go forward from here.”
Eden Sonn, a Mayo Clinic nurse who stopped by the news conference to hear Dayton speak, said she paid attention to budget debates over health and human services. She wasn’t as up on the post-session squabbles, but after hearing from Dayton she said she believes he’s taking the right approach.
“I think it’s great that he’s open to keeping conversation going,” she said.