ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — All eyes heading into this year’s legislative session were on new House Speaker Kurt Daudt, under pressure to hold together 71 fellow Republicans back in power and eager to slash government spending.
But it was Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a 20-year legislative veteran with a reputation as a crafty negotiator, who was tending to internal wounds by session’s end. Senate Democrats defected in droves from votes on pieces of a $42 billion budget now on the governor’s desk, a sign some DFL lawmakers say shows dissatisfaction with their leader.
Bakk wrote a letter Wednesday trying to soothe his caucus, which split on such votes as an environmental funding bill that only one in four Democrats supported. Nearly half of the Senate’s budget bills required Republican support to pass.
Fresh from voting against a deal that Bakk cut, several Senate Democrats — usually quiet about internal leadership discussions — were open about their unhappiness with Bakk.
“I guess you can look at the votes and you can see who does not agree with leadership,” said Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada. “We’re having trouble. There’s no doubt about it.”
Repairing relationships is part of any post-budget deal hangover, and Bakk manages a diverse caucus, with members from the Twin Cities to tiny Twin Valley, each with their own set of rural and urban concerns. All 39 Senate Democrats are coming off a two-year nirvana of high legislative expectations that came with DFL-controlled government.
Bakk did not return several calls requesting comment. In a letter to his caucus obtained by The Associated Press, Bakk repeatedly referenced the challenges of coming to a budget deal with majority House Republicans this year. And he trumpeted getting an agreement in which the Senate moved its spending target down by only about $195 million, while Republicans moved up by $1.6 billion.
But for Scalze and others, the problems go beyond the disappointment of passing a budget that looked much different after Bakk and Daudt emerged from days of private negotiations with a deal in hand. It’s how leadership handled the final days of session.
Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, said many budget bills were controlled unilaterally, with little input or outreach to herself and other members. She and Scalze declined to put a number on how many Senate Democrats are upset, saying only to “look at the votes.”
Enough Democrats voted against three of the state’s seven budget bills that they required GOP votes to pass. Seven Democrats voted ‘no’ on three or more.
Take the environment budget, which just 10 Democrats — and 25 Republicans — voted to pass. Scalze said the finished product contained a surprise law change she and other members couldn’t stomach: exempting copper and nickel mines on the Iron Range from the state’s solid waste regulations. Bakk and other Senate DFLers represent swaths of the Iron Range.
“(Bakk) gave up a lot of stuff that other members had worked real hard on while he was getting everything he wanted for the Iron Range,” Goodwin said. “That kind of naked power is really not appreciated.”
Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka Democrat, voted against that bill too. But she defended Bakk for doing what was necessary to bridge an enormous divide with House Republicans and end the session on time.
“I think members who are dissatisfied did not have firsthand experience negotiating with these people,” said Bonoff, who bargained with House Republicans to finalize a higher education budget. “Those who did have a lot more empathy and compassion for how this turned out.”
Goodwin said she’s had a good relationship with Bakk since she joined the Senate in 2010. But the last few days of 2015’s session call for some changes, she said.
“I think it’s a fence he needs to mend. I think he does need to listen to the membership, those of us who are unhappy,” she said.
Scalze isn’t sure what can repair the relationship with Bakk, and didn’t know whether a leadership change would be an option. As a first-term senator, that’s not her place, she said.
“My only power is in the vote,” she said. “And I can vote no if I feel like I can’t trust somebody.”
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