The mediator who will attempt to broker an end to the monthslong political and legal battle between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders is a retired Hennepin County judge with a long track record of sorting out high-stakes disputes.
Dayton and lawmakers on Tuesday jointly selected Rick Solum, a former trial lawyer and judge who has long focused on mediation, after the Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent order that the two sides resolve their dispute outside of a courtroom. Solum is charged with breaking an impasse that threatens to shut down the state House and Senate after Dayton cut their funding with a line-item veto, initiating a constitutional quandary about the limits of the governor and Legislature’s power.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Dayton said he hopes that Solum’s mediation experience on “controversial issues with very divided parties” — ranging from the dispute over the land value of the site of the Minnesota Twins ballpark, to settlements in the Ponzi scheme of former Wayzata businessman Tom Petters — will help end the stalemate.
“I think his skill and expertise, which both the Legislature and I recognized [by] putting him to the top of our list of recommendations, says he’s very skilled at this, very experienced with this,” Dayton said. “I’m hopeful that that skill will enable us to succeed at reaching a resolution.”
Solum, who retired in 1998, will likely begin meeting with Dayton, legislative leaders and their attorneys next week. The two sides must file a joint report to the Supreme Court on the status of the Legislature’s finances by Sept. 15, then produce a report on the mediation by Sept. 30.
It’s not yet clear exactly how the mediation sessions will be run, or how much information about them will be released to the public. But it’s obvious that Solum faces a significant task in unraveling divisions that flared in May, when Dayton lined out legislative funding amid a dispute over a handful of items in a Republican tax bill, along with policy provisions on teacher licensing and driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Dayton pushed for Republican lawmakers to come back to the negotiating table. Instead they took Dayton to court, arguing that his veto violated the constitutional separation of branches of government.
A lower court ruled earlier this summer in favor of the Legislature. Dayton appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which did not throw out the governor’s veto, but said the two sides should seek a mediator’s help to end their stalemate.
Though both sides have said they are ready for mediation, neither seems entirely willing to drop the arguments they have been making since this spring.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a statement Tuesday that this year’s legislative session was “one of the most productive in recent history” and that few lawmakers are eager to delve back into the work they completed months ago.
“I’ve talked to members of the Legislature and they’re not interested in revisiting bills that were bipartisan, that the governor agreed to, and are now law,” he said, adding that his goal in mediation will be to restore legislative funding in an effort to keep state government running and ensure the Senate can pay all its bills.
Dayton, meanwhile, said he’s open to discussing a range of topics, but remains convinced of the importance of the issues that prompted his veto.
Solum did not respond to a request for comment. Several people who worked with him on other cases said they expect the mediator to employ the same sense of calm and diligence that has helped him in countless other matters.
“He is unflappable,” said Dan Rosen, a Minneapolis attorney who has worked with Solum, including on the Twins ballpark land dispute in 2007, when Rosen represented a group of land owners.
“If the parties will level with him, they will find him to be an excellent facilitator of a win-win compromise,” Rosen said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, also involved in the ballpark case, said, “Rick’s a very straightforward, plain-spoken guy and I’m sure he’ll look both sides in the eye and impress upon them the importance of an agreement.”
Solum has donated to DFL candidates in the past, including a contribution to Dayton’s campaign in 2014. But people who have worked with him describe him as relatively apolitical and likely to give thoughtful consideration to both sides.
Taxpayers are funding the private attorneys hired by both the governor and the Legislature in their ongoing dispute, but it’s not clear how the costs related to the mediation will be covered.
“These are all details we are still working out at this time,” said Keith Hovis, spokesman for the Minnesota Management and Budget office.