ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota Senate vote to roll back pay raises for state commissioners exposed a deep rift Thursday between Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a fellow Democrat the governor says "connives behind my back."
In an unusually public dress-down of a top legislator of his own party, Dayton said he felt blindsided by the vote and would no longer deal with the Senate leader one on one. Dayton said he would veto the bill rescinding the pay increases, legislation that also provides money for the state's Ebola response and staffing at the sex offender security hospital in St Peter.
"I thought my relationship with Senator Bakk had always been positive and professional. I certainly learned a brutal lesson today that I can't trust him in what he says to me. He connives behind my back," Dayton said. The two spoke by phone Thursday in what Dayton described as a pointed conversation.
Bakk was not present at a meeting Dayton held with a half-dozen Democratic senators where he vented about their move.
Bakk, a 21-year lawmaker from Cook, responded in a text message to The Associated Press that he "will not comment on private conversations except to say if he feels that way he was not listening when we had a conversation about the potential options to be considered relative to floor action on the bill."
The vote to suspend the salary increases was 63-2, with St. Paul's Sandra Pappas and Minneapolis' Patricia Torres Ray opposing it. The provision was attached to a $15 million stopgap spending bill plugging shortfalls at the natural resources and health and human services departments as well as the Minnesota Zoo.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was noncommittal about whether they'd vote next week on the Senate bill or a slightly different version of their own. If the House adopts the Senate version next week, the bill would go to Dayton. A veto could set up a possible override, a fate Dayton has never encountered.
Lawmakers learned of the pay raises last week, some of which topped $30,000. One department head, new Metropolitan Council chairman Adam Duininck, saw an $84,000 increase over the previous leader's pay partly because the position moved from part time to full time.
In a sign of worry about political fallout, Bakk led the effort against the pay hikes, which was supported by Republicans who argued the Legislature should go even further in stopping salary bumps.
"It buys us the time we need in order to do a thoughtful review," Bakk explained during the floor debate. "We may find out the governor's actions are well-substantiated."
Republican Sen. Torrey Westrom, an Elbow Lake Republican, voiced worry about the pay springing back to Dayton's levels later on.
"I don't think it goes far enough," Westrom said. "We should do more than just July 1st."
Dayton, who just started a second term, has defended the raises as making up for years of suppressed salaries. Until a 2013 law change, commissioners couldn't earn more than the governor's roughly $120,000 pay; the new setup allows them to make up to 133 percent of his salary.
"They passed the law. They gave me the authority to set salaries up to a limit of $164,000," Dayton said. "The top salary is $155,000."
At a House hearing earlier Thursday, Republicans called the raises "extravagant" and "outlandish." Democrats offered a measured defense, noting how school superintendents and city managers often make far more than state counterparts with bigger staffs and budgets.
Rep. Michael Nelson, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, said he repeatedly hears that government should be run like a business, but said that same cry doesn't apply to upper-management pay.
"We could put a bunch of slugs in there and pay them nothing and then we'd scream when the government is not running right," Nelson said.