State government may be divided, but my sloppy survey of its professional observers indicates that they are united on this point: House Speaker Kurt Daudt was the big political winner of the 2015 session.
In only his third term, the 41-year-old former car salesman and Isanti County commissioner looked confident in the speaker's chair. He wielded his gavel, made from wood harvested on his grandparents' farm, without a high-profile goof. He delivered his Republican majority's talking points clearly with remarkably little snark, rancor or disrespect for the other side.
Daudt kept his new majority caucus together on the year's major battles. That could not be said of his Senate counterpart, DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk, whose bad day at the June 12 special session turned into a worse night during the wee hours of June 13. Critics in his caucus reportedly took him to the woodshed for the ag/environment bill's contents (which, in the end, he voted against) and other perceived missteps.
And Daudt delivered — what?
Well, he was a big backer of the new and improved nursing home funding formula … and, uh … (checking my notes from the May 20 post-session news conference here) … he blocked DFL plans to raise the gas tax!
That day in May, Daudt and Co. bragged about the heft of an education bill that was about to be vetoed for being too small. It was a strange boast about a bill that on that day was already $200 million larger than the one these same House leaders sent to conference committee.
Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin said the House GOP caucus had reined in spending, producing the third-slowest rate of biennium-over-biennium expenditure growth since 1960. But they did it via spending shifts in the current fiscal year and the next biennium of more than $730 million, by state finance officials' tally.
Factor those gimmicks in, and spending growth in fiscal years 2016-17 is sixth-lowest in modern times — not bad, but not head-turning, either.
As for the oft-mentioned gas-tax increase that didn't happen: It's a discouraging sign of Minnesota's political times that blocking the other party's priorities and passing no bill can suffice as a bragging point.
State government control has been shared by two or more political parties in 23 of the past 25 years. During those years, the competing lawmaking teams have become adept at playing defense. They know well how to foil the opposition's plans and make 'em look bad to boot.
The two parties' skills on legislative offense — on actually doing what they say they want to do for Minnesota — aren't nearly as sharp. But an electorate that is itself divided into mistrustful partisan camps seems satisfied with a good blocking game and continuation of the status quo. For now, voters don't seem to be clamoring for much more.
This year, none of the three major political players in St. Paul delivered the top item on their wish list. Senate DFLers wanted a transportation fix robust enough to stabilize roads and upgrade transit over the next 10 years. A gas-tax increase was one of several funding sources they proposed to do it.
The House GOP wanted a $2 billion tax cut. Senate DFLers made any general-fund tax cut contingent on House approval of a gas-tax increase, dedicated to highways. When given the choice "both or neither," Daudt's caucus picked "neither." Evidently — and maybe accurately — it was deemed more politically acceptable than any version of "both" would be, even though "neither" won't fix state roads anytime soon.
Gov. Mark Dayton's top priority was universal preschool, delivered via public schools. That aim was blocked in both the House and the Senate. But Dayton didn't come away empty-handed. The E-12 bill he signed into law last weekend was the prize of the 2015 session. It included $100 million for various early ed efforts, much more than any previous Legislature directed to little learners.
Dayton deserves a lot of the credit for that boost. Yet the DFL governor may also be chary about compomise. He could have done a victory lap around the state last week to boast that the E-12 bill he signed finally deserved its "E," for early education. Instead, his schedule was unusually devoid of public appearances — leaving Minnesotans to remember his losses more than his wins in the lawmaking arena.
Daudt was better than either DFLer at putting a shiny veneer on modest accomplishment and keeping peace within his political tribe. That's sufficient to land a legislative leader in the winner's circle — unless and until Minnesotans demand more of state government.
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Permit a word of clarification about a reference in last Sunday's column to legislative language exempting nonferrous mining from solid-waste rules, a much-contested provision in the special session's agriculture/environment funding bill.
I wrote that it had never been introduced "as a bill," meaning in a standalone version, or "heard in any legislative committee before its appearance on May 18." But it was "in a bill." Actually, at various times, it was in both the House and Senate omnibus ag/enviro omnibus bills. In the Senate, it showed up in the omnibus bill as it left a finance committee division, but was removed soon thereafter by the full finance committee. In the House, it went into the omnibus bill as a floor amendment.
It was never the subject of its own committee hearing —though it's a fair guess that it was the topic of full-throated conversation in closed Senate DFL caucus meetings between May 18 and June 13.
Thanks to Wayne Brandt of Minnesota Forest Industries, Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and Allison Wolf of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy for helping me trace this little nonferrous nugget's legislative trail. To any citizen who tries to do so without a guide — good luck. I predict you'll soon agree that Minnesota could use more transparency in state lawmaking.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.