Political Chatter: Legislative Deals Made Away From Public’s Eye

Minnesota’s legislative leaders often say that House-Senate conference committees should work out major legislation in public.

That way, the logic goes, not only can the public watch the public’s business, but more eyes on bills would mean fewer mistakes.

But pretty much every year, those public negotiations never happen.

A couple of this year’s biggest bills were on their deathbeds as the session wound down. Democrats who run the Senate and Republicans who control the House had not been able to agree on how to craft a public works bill and one injecting new money into transportation.

When the going got tough on those measures, legislative leaders went behind closed doors.

This year, those closed doors usually were to Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s office. He and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, and others from time to time, tried to work out details for days. Reporters were camped outside awaiting word about any progress.

The scene was similar to past negotiations, except the “cone of silence” — as Gov. Mark Dayton called it — was not activated. In an effort to make the meetings a bit more transparent, the Democratic governor refused to agree that whatever said in negotiations remained in the private room.

So when Dayton was involved in talks, he usually briefed reporters afterward. Bakk often talked, too, and Daudt did sometimes, but he was the most reluctant of the three to talk after high-level meetings.

Lawmakers often stopped reporters in the final days, asking: “What’s happening? You know more than we do.”

Republicans and Democrats alike decry the closed-door system, but little changes from year to year.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said that the rush to finish bills this year resulted in mistakes.

“In the last-minute flurry of bill drafting, several projects — including the Duluth steam plant and Arrowhead Regional Wellness Center — were listed on a spreadsheet, but not actually included in the bill,” Reinert said. “This is extremely disappointing, and shows the significant and real dangers of last-minute legislating.”

Daudt: Bakk waits

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is a master at using time to get what he wants, House Speaker Kurt Daudt said, but it did not quite work this year when lawmakers ran out of time before passing key bills.

“He uses time management to do what he thinks is to his advantage,” Daudt told Forum News Service. “He waits you out until the very end.”

The scramble at the end of the session was “what I call textbook Tom Bakk,” Daudt said.

Bakk may not talk much about his tactics, but he said say about legislating: “This is a contact sport.”

In her retirement speech the day after lawmakers missed their deadline, Sen. Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, turned to Bakk and said: “I do think you are a gifted strategist. I am sorry it did not work out last night.”

Passive Ventura

Pretty much no one expected former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to run for president, so they will not be surprised that he is not.

But why he is not running may be surprising.

“I am stating unequivocally that I am not running for president,” Ventura said on the ora.tv Website. “I would love to run against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I’d love to debate them, but, just in case I would win, I don’t want to do the job. And if you don’t want to do the job, you have no business running for president.”

Ventura said the country is messed up beyond repair.

“I simply don’t have it in my heart to do the job,” he said. “Besides, I’m too passive.”

Democrat honors Republican

A western Twin Cities Democratic senator used her spotlight to honor a western Minnesota Republican colleague for his courage.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, delivering her retirement speech in the state Senate, before running for the U.S. House, said Minnesota’s only blind legislator is an inspiration.

“He is so courageous and strong,” Bonoff said of Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. “You don’t need to have sympathy for Sen. Westrom because he truly is graced with God’s good will and his life is a gift for all of us.”

Vets get tax break

A military veteran tax break sought for two decades has a chance of becoming law.

A provision passed the Legislature to allow veterans to avoid paying state income tax on their military retirement pay. Nearly 18,000 Minnesota veterans could see taxes fall because of the provision.