In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton Monday over the impasse that threatened to shut down state government and suspend thousands of jobs, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, wrote: “The time has come to put Minnesota first.”

To which I ask: “Why start now?”

Every legislative session has its share of power-grabbing, backstabbing and money-grubbing, but this clown show is especially irksome because Minnesota actually comes in last on a list that includes Mark Dayton, Tom Bakk, Kurt Daudt and their egos.

Until Dayton caved Tuesday on his fight to stop a new law that strips power from the state auditor, we had to come to grips with the idea the state was in suspended animation over the power of a job few voters really understand, a job some government watchers say, however, is key to the state’s image of clean government.

If this really is what he dubbed as a battle of “intransigence,” Dayton lost, just as he did on education funding. Now they are at odds about, well, something else. Who can keep track?

The deal hatched at 3 a.m. to gut the office of the state auditor makes little sense — unless you are looking for revenge, or to drastically lower the profile of a statewide officeholder who also has higher aspirations. Sen. Bakk, DFL-Cook, has repeatedly denied he agreed to the possibly unconstitutional move in order to get back at Auditor Rebecca Otto for her vote against exploratory mining leases in northern Minnesota.

Why the Republicans agreed to undercutting the office by allowing counties to audit themselves is puzzling. Thirteen of 18 state auditors have been Republicans, so they are likely to just get the job back soon, albeit a vastly weakened job. Some legislators I spoke to think it’s simply an ideological agenda to privatize anything done by government.

Both Dayton and Arne Carlson used the boring, unsexy job of auditor to establish a statewide profile and eventually become governor. Judi Dutcher used it to launch her gubernatorial bid in 2001 but lost.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said he doesn’t believe denying Otto a larger stage was at the heart of any political maneuver, but the mining vote might be.

“There is a quiet campaign to clear way for expanded mining Up North,” said Jacobs. “Elimination of Citizens Board for Pollution Control Agency is one sign; this may be another after Otto nixed some permits.”

David Schultz, a professor at Hamline, thinks the Otto snub may likely result from a combination of things, including strengthening Dayton’s — and by extension, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith’s — support in the Iron Range.

So the state was held in limbo over a bill that Dayton should have never signed, and everyone pretends they don’t know how it happened.

As Ricardo Lopez wrote Sunday, sources told him that it was Daudt, along with Bakk’s aide, who pressured legislators to push a controversial item that would never have passed if given a thorough hearing. They both denied it, and Daudt pointed fingers at two other legislators, who said that, on the contrary, they were told it had already been negotiated by the leadership of the parties.

Someone is lying.

In an e-mail obtained by Lopez, Bakk tried to blame it on the Association of Minnesota Counties. Their lobbyist, however, said the group was “surprised” to see the change in the final bill.

Someone is lying.

The House chair of the conference committee said senators should not have been surprised by the change because it was in the spread sheets of the state government bill. Lopez bothered to look at those spread sheets. They showed the Senate never agreed to the change, after all.

Someone is lying.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, summed up the situation pretty well in an e-mail obtained by Lopez: “Many of us feel disrespected, taken for granted, and that we were played for fools and pawns in some game of power that only a select few caucus members are playing.”

Exactly. I’m guessing a lot of Minnesotans feel that way, too.

One veteran House member called this session “the worst I’ve seen in terms of transparency.”

We will likely have a resolution to the impasse in the coming days, but at what cost?

“Minnesota stands out in the country for clean government, you don’t see the kind of corruption that is rampant in Illinois or the quiet massive inefficiencies that you see in other states,” said Jacobs “One of the reasons is that the state is ringed with independent watchdogs. The state auditor was written into the Constitution. Minnesota designed in clean and accountable government. Weakening that design risks the corruption and inefficiency that the state’s founders and its leaders have long feared.”

Schultz, who predicts a costly lawsuit over the auditor’s role, adds: “Also, historically lots of local governments dislike the auditor. A good auditor holds local governments accountable and many, especially in the rural and Iron Range areas, really resent the auditor sniffing around in their finances. These areas of the state also have distinct political interests from Otto.”

Most people I spoke to also agreed the debacle doesn’t help Dayton’s leverage going forward.

“Dayton entered overtime with a clear and compelling argument — help 4-year olds.,” said Jacobs. First he signed a bill that included a state auditor makeover and then turned on it. Once in overtime, the state auditor emerged as an issue and then disappeared. Now other issues are popping up on the radar screen that were not previously profiled.

“At a minimum, Dayton is sending the signal to Republicans that if they resist forcefully enough, the governor will fold his tent,” Jacobs said. “As expectations about the governor’s tenacity erode, his effectiveness in prevailing on the newer agenda are less likely to succeed.”

And that’s how you lose the battle of intransigence.


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