Forget about any constitutional issue, the separation of powers doctrine or any other, when it comes to Gov. Mark Dayton’s recent line item veto of the entire budget for the Minnesota House and Senate. Too often analysis of Minnesota politics devolves into a tedious, process-only focus that masquerades as substantive. It usually isn’t, even, or perhaps especially, in this instance.
Gov. Dayton’s veto of the legislative branch is brilliant political jiu jitsu. I use that term deliberately: jiu jitsu is the branch of martial arts that uses an oncoming opponent’s energy against them, with a minimum of effort by its practitioner.
Here, Republicans in the legislature sent Gov. Dayton a tax bill they were eager to have signed (having unconscionably whittled tax relief from an initial 1.2 billion dollars to a mere 650 million). As an inducement to him signing and not vetoing the bill, they included a provision that would have left the Department of Revenue unfunded. Nothing gets a free spending liberals attention quite like the inability of Leviathan to dragoon money from the serfs.
The Governor initially said he would let the bill become law by not signing it, which most observers had thought was the definition of a “pocket veto.” He reversed himself hours later and signed the bill so as to foreclose this interpretation of his action by the courts and the tax legislation became law.
Before any bills generated by the special session were signed, Republican leaders commenced an ill-advised fly around of the state crowing, risibly, that theirs was an “historically productive” session. Naturally they omitted that that session increased government spending by 9.6% and included, by some estimates, a total of 2.5 billion dollars in bonding. The national disgrace of the Republican Senate in not acting on female genital mutilation legislation, which passed in the House 124 to 4, was likewise left unmentioned. But fly and crow they did.
Asked if Gov. Dayton knew whether the “poison pill” that would shutter the Department of Revenue was in the tax bill before receiving it, Speaker Daudt unwisely said “He eventually found it.” This suggested something less than candor in the negotiations with Dayton, an interpretation which leadership later vigorously protested against when the Governor claimed precisely that. A self-inflicted wound, one might call it, though by this time they were piling up around the hapless Republicans.
In a move that no one saw coming, nor, to be fair, could reasonably have seen, Dayton signed the budget bill but not before excising two lines from it: the budget of the entire legislature. The only proper reaction to such a move was astonishment, followed by respect, followed by laughter at the sheer audaciousness of it. Game, set, match.
Much sputtering, shock and indignation followed, of course. But Republicans couldn’t deny that they were momentarily beaten, and soundly, at their own game.
Here’s where the process discussions overwhelmed the substance of what had just happened.
“Unconstitutional!” bleated some of the most strident Never Trump Republicans, a subject they were happy to ignore when the federal constitution was in the balance last November with an open Supreme Court seat. No matter, it was important to them now because they were mad at having been masterfully outmaneuvered. This time, the gored ox was personal: their paychecks or future political ambitions.
On the merits of his own argument, Gov. Dayton is in a weak position. His reason for zeroing out the legislature was to get them to undo in another special session several provisions contained in the very bills he had just signed. There’s no reason to disbelieve Speaker Daudt who said that the Governor himself, not staff, agreed to them beforehand. Not even a bored dilettante passing time as the state’s chief executive can have it both ways.
Dayton’s veto doubtlessly upset plans for those who wish to run for governor next year. If you’re in either chamber of the legislature, you can hardly say you’re well equipped for a promotion while your current work lies in disarray. Matters need to be sorted out before announcing yourself as a candidate for higher office. Meanwhile, the legislature has hired outside counsel to sue the Governor.
It’s likely the Minnesota Supreme Court will rule that Dayton’s veto of the legislative budget is unconstitutional. But his action scrambled the politics of a lackluster, at times painfully disappointing, legislative session in which Republicans demonstrated they can deliver for the special interests that help them stay in power but not for their base, without whose votes they wouldn’t be in power in the first place. No primary challenges please; eat the dog food.
Dayton’s breathtaking veto also shows just how much better Democrats in this state are at playing politics than Republicans. Fear of failure practically doesn’t exist for them, while it keeps Republicans more or less in a permanent state of paralysis. Half a loaf is always better than none but not when the whole loaf is rarely fought for. Given the results of this session, the case for voting Republican is increasingly difficult to make.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka recently said that perhaps Gov. Dayton could deem his vetoes symbolic and thus Republicans would not need to take him to court. This is the definition of magical thinking but mostly it represents an appalling understanding of the current situation.
Gov. Dayton won’t be on the ballot next year but acted in a bold way few could have predicted. His vetoes showcased the comparative timidity of Minnesota Republicans, to say nothing of political skill. His actions may well be found unconstitutional as a matter of law, but as a matter of politics, they remain brilliant.
To think they can’t be both at the same time is to have missed the point.