Memories of 2011 remain fresh for Mark Dayton.
That was when Dayton, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, faced a conservative Republican Legislature and as time ran out the two sides could not agree on a state budget, throwing Minnesota into a three-week government shutdown. While no one is predicting another shutdown in 2015 as legislators and Dayton work to write a two-year state budget, it is obvious the shutdown haunts the governor as he prepares for his second term in office.
In 2011, both chambers of the Legislature were Republican and the GOP was trying to take advantage of the party’s unusual power. In 2015, the Senate is in Democrats’ hands, as is the governor’s office, while the House is back in Republican control after two years in the minority.
Dayton and the Senate majority likely will agree on most major issues and spending decisions in 2015, but it will take House Republican approval to get things done. And leading the House as speaker will be Republican Kurt Daudt of Crown, a third-term representative considered a nice and moderate guy, but who calls himself as conservative as most in his caucus.
When asked if he trusts Daudt, Dayton responded quickly: “I have no reason not to.”
But he immediately added that he had a good relationship with Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, speaker during the shutdown. The governor recalled that things went south in session-ending negotiations when the two sides could not agree on a budget.
“I knew that he was captive of his extreme right-wing caucus that was so inflexible … that if he would agree to something reasonable that he would not be speaker an hour later,” Dayton said of Zellers.
Applying that experience to budget talks next year, Dayton said that success rests on whether “Rep. Daudt has the latitude and authorization to agree to or not.”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the problem is that Republicans long ago established an executive council that can control a speaker.
“I do think he sincerely wants to have a smooth session,” Bakk said of Daudt.
The incoming speaker himself said that he understands negotiations mean giving up something.
“We aren’t going to get everything we want,” Daudt said.
The amount of freedom the executive council gives Daudt could determine the session’s success, Bakk said, adding that he has worked well with Daudt in recent years.
“I don’t know the extent they are going to empower him,” Bakk said. “Is the Kurt Daudt I know the one I will negotiate with or will he bring some baggage with him?”
In a recent interview, Daudt did not address the executive council, but said he has good relationships with Dayton and legislative leaders, including outgoing Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, who will be House minority leader.
The speaker-designate said that he believes the person who will be Democrats’ key negotiator, Dayton, has the best interest of Minnesota at heart and is trustworthy.
However, Daudt added, “he has always been unpredictable.”
Daudt said that while he knows Bakk well, he needs to learn more about Dayton.
As for a shutdown, Daudt echoes comments from many other lawmakers: “We are in a completely different situation.”
That situation become known earlier this month when state officials announced a $1 billion surplus, although they also said there really was little surplus because inflation would eat up that $1 billion.
A surplus “helps our relationship,” Daudt said.
Still, there will be tension.
While Dayton blamed what he calls the inflexibility of Republicans to negotiate for the 2011 budget stalemate, Daudt recalled things differently in his first year in the House. He said that the governor did not tell Republicans just where he stood on many budget items, and Dayton’s commissioners were not empowered to speak for him during budget meetings.
One of the Democrats’ leaders had only good things to say about Daudt.
“He was fair on the House floor,” Assistant Minority Leader-elect Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “He gave spirited speeches and debate, but he was never personal. … I think he has a good track record.”
One of Daudt’s assistants, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, called him “an exceptionally talented young man.”
“He has a lot of support throughout the caucus,” Torkelson added.
Veteran Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said Daudt and other leaders will work well as Republicans dealing with Democrats who control the Senate and governor’s office. “We know the situation; we need to work with both the Senate and the governor’s office.”
The 2011 shutdown may have been caused by “a few people coming in with more horsepower than they needed,” he said.
“That was probably the most unusual session I have been through,” Nornes said. “We learned from that.”
The incoming speaker, at 41 the youngest in that position since the 1930s, approaches things a bit differently than some of his colleagues.
Daudt said would like to see legislators stop presenting solutions, in the form of bills, before problems are thoroughly vetted by legislative committees. His idea is to come into session to examine problems, then as information is gleaned, solutions can be discussed and bills written.
As it is, he said, many legislators introduce bills as soon as the Legislature begins work.
Whether talking about how to approach problems or budget negotiations, Daudt indicates he is optimistic about the legislative session to begin at noon Jan. 6.
“In the end, we will get it done,” he promised, and without a shutdown.