The Case Against Majority Leader Tom Bakk

by Dave Mindeman

(Note: The following is my own opinion based on observations regarding this legislative session.)

If you want a good read regarding the last minute negotiations between the House and Senate in the final day, then check out Brianna Biersbach’s article in Politics in Minnesota (may be firewalled).  This article talks about the conflicts going on, but quite frankly, the whole problem centers around 1 person – Majority Leader Tom Bakk. This session should have been a chance for a lot of DFL priorities to get a full hearing….and in the end, most of them did. But the petty shenanigans that seem to abound in the Majority Leader’s office nearly derailed a good session.

Let’s look at the evidence.

1) Legislator Pay – I agree that the legislators are underpaid, but to focus on the issue like Bakk did was totally unecessary. The House has to go before the voters again in 2014 and a legislative pay issue was the wrong item to bring forward. In the end, the issue was finalized as a Constitutional amendment vote for 2016. As far as I’m concerned, it was unecessary baggage.

2) Business to Business Taxes – Although I would support a broader sales tax expansion….Dayton decided to pull the plug on his plan early in the session. Bakk brought it partially back after the controversy had been allowed to die…and then chose some very controversial items to move ahead with. The tax chairs (House – Lencewski and Senate- Skoe) were in a long drawn out conflict about it. And an exasperated Lencewski couldn’t seem to figure out which way the Senate conferees wanted to go….

The tax bill also proved a source of headaches in the 11th hour, particularly a provision that would apply the sales tax to farm machinery repairs, which would raise $28 million in the next biennium. The Senate came to Lenczewski to tell her the provision was a mistake, but she insisted that conference committee members were adamant about its inclusion. She was uninterested in reopening the tax bill to accommodate the Senate. “The Senate insisted on it, and now they’re saying it was an error,” Lenczewski said with about five hours before adjournment on Monday. “They’d like us to open the tax bill to fix their problems.”

To have that kind of confusion in the final hours was nearly a disaster. The whole thing was unecessary and, quite frankly, is not going to produce enough revenue to warrant its inclusion. It WAS a mistake, but now its there. Watch for a correction next year. Unfortunately, this foolishness will give the GOP a new talking point.

3) Bonding Bill – First the Republicans renegged on promises to support the Hausman bonding bill which put all bonding in jeopardy at the last minute. But Bakk insulted the House further by pushing a last minute Capitol Bonding fix without consulting the House Democrats. That put the House in an impossible position and left Hausman holding the bag. Bakk forced the issue and left the House Dems with no room or ability to negotiate. Hausman did not even present the bill and left it to John Ward to shepard it through the House.

That left Capitol action at a standstill that stretched deep into the evening. Senators wandered around the floor in recess, while the House opted to simply stop moving bills without actually recessing. Shortly before 9 p.m., the House Republican caucus emerged on the House floor after disappearing to caucus on a bonding proposal. When they came back, a new $156 million general obligation bonding bill was immediately taken up on the floor. It included $109 million for Capitol repairs, $22 million for two new parking facilities at the Capitol complex, $19 million for the Minneapolis veterans’ home and $20 million for flood mitigation. Hausman made it clear that she was upset by the final outcome: DFL Rep. John Ward presented the bonding package on the floor, while she was nowhere to be found. “I know what I want,” Hausman said a day before adjournment. “I want my old bill.”

The Capitol bonding was clearly needed (Capitol rennovation would have stopped without new bonding) but Bakk had no business strongarming this through without warning. That is going to damage the trust between the bodies and clearly they need to be showing a united front.

4) Previous Tax Bill Vote – You probably remember that the first vote on the Tax Bill failed a few weeks ago. Bakk seemed to be surprised by the actual votes of his own caucus…. and then, as the remedy, he managed to put a couple of freshman legislators on the hot seat – changing their votes. It was an embarrassment for the Senate and gave fodder to the GOP which they brought up at every opportunity.

5) Minimum Wage – I don’t know if this was a Bakk problem or maybe the Bonoff “wing” of the Senate, but the minimum wage was held hostage by Senate intransigence. They stuck to a lower base that is barely above subsistence living and wouldn’t touch indexing. There was a pretext of a conference committee on this but it was a victim of the last minute maneuverings and time constraints — constraints which were unnecessary because both versions of the bill had been passed with plenty of time.

6) Gun Bills – Bakk deftly kept himself out of direct controversy on background check gun legislation. His past has been heavily supportive of the NRA and he gave lip service to watered down legislation in regards to gun bills. He let Speaker Thissen take the heat by forcing the House to take the more controversial positions on the issue and when Thissen decided it wasn’t going to work for the session, Bakk simply concurred, ending the issue and any tough vote.

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This session was still a success, but Bakk always seemed to be in the middle of any controversy. I’m afraid that Bakk’s agenda could end up putting the House majority in jeopardy come 2014. Even when the Governor, the House, and Senate are in DFL control, there must still be compromises on the table. Playing stubborn games within your own legislative agenda is a dangerous thing to do.