Chalk it up to a rookie mistake. And a forgivable one, the regulars in the State Capitol’s second-floor corridor allowed — even though it had cost most of them a night’s sleep.
The announcement in the regular session’s final hour that a special session would finish the year’s budget-setting work by 7 a.m. Wednesday wasn’t just overly optimistic. It was implausible. It struck the corridor crew as the wishful-thinking miscalculation of a first-time Senate majority leader, unfamiliar with the sheer logistics of drafting and tallying the biggest bills the Legislature enacts — not to mention the propensity of 200 other legislators to gum up the works.
But the Capitol benchwarmers’ reviews of Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s performance this year were too positive to be altered by one overpromise. There might not have been a special session or a budget framework to turn into legislation if Gazelka had not been among the session’s principal dealmakers, they said.
Gazelka was this year’s new player in the triumvirate that makes the biggest decisions at the end of a legislative session. The other two, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, have a history — and it’s not a fruitful one. The 2015-16 lawmaking cycle was notably unproductive, and the longer its seemingly perpetual special-session negotiations ran, the more willing Dayton and particularly Daudt were to publicly criticize each other.
Dayton is not seeking re-election in 2018. There were times this session when I wanted to slip Daudt a note reminding him of that fact. His verbal barrages against Dayton were of the sort politicians usually reserve for a rival candidate in the heat of a campaign.
The Capitol crowd chalks up Daudt’s increasing pugnacity to preparation for the gubernatorial bid he’s widely expected to launch this summer. That points to a key difference they see between Daudt and Gazelka. The mild-mannered 57-year-old senator from Nisswa doesn’t appear to be seeking any office higher than the one he now occupies.
According to third-hand accounts — which, given the Legislature’s galling lack of transparency at session’s end, are the only kind available — Gazelka was key to keeping talks moving forward at a point of near-breakdown last weekend. He’s an insurance agent by profession but possessed of a pastoral manner that reflects his devout Christian faith and seems to call out the better angels of other people’s natures.
“He’s a servant leader,” said lobbyist Chris de la Forest, a former legislator who was Gazelka’s seatmate a dozen years ago on the House floor. “He’s extremely humble, yet he’s very solution-oriented. He always checks his ego at the door, and he knows how to help other people do the same. He doesn’t care who gets credit, but he cares very much about getting the job done.”
Getting the job done is never easy at the Legislature. But Gazelka has had a particular handicap — a 34-33 Senate majority. One absence or defection was all it took to upend his plans. When that happened, he seemed to take the upset in stride. He kept calmly telling pesky reporters that a budget — complete with last cycle’s missing tax bill, bonding bill and transportation funding — could be enacted in ample time to avoid a July government shutdown.
He made good on that prediction while the calendar still said May. The special session didn’t end until the wee hours Friday. But provided Dayton signs the budget bills into law, state government appears headed for a summer of respite from brinkmanship and dysfunction.
For that finish, Gazelka gets high marks from the Capitol veterans. But several urged me to mention what they see as Gazelka’s other, potentially much bigger rookie mistake: He just persuaded a reluctant Dayton to accept a $650 million tax cut in the eighth year of a business expansion.
At similar points in the national economic cycle, Republican Gov. Al Quie in 1979 and Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1999-2000 pushed big tax cuts into law as rookie governors. Quie spent the second half of his term mopping up red ink. Ventura handed a huge deficit to his successor.
“We haven’t repealed the business cycle yet,” said lobbyist John Kaul, who served as DFL Senate majority caucus chief of staff in 1979. He said that his boss that year, the late Sen. Nicholas Coleman, knew that Quie’s plan to adjust individual income tax brackets each year for inflation would shrink state revenue at an economically risky time. But Quie had campaigned on the “indexing” issue in 1978 and won. Like Gazelka, Quie was (and is, at age 93) a gracious, devout and determined fellow. He got his way on a tax cut in 1979, just before a recession arrived that hit Minnesota’s Iron Range particularly hard.
Gazelka grew up in Virginia, Minn. I bet he remembers those years well.
The Capitol old hands say that in personality and style, Gazelka reminds them of Quie. If the economy turns down before 2020, when the state Senate is next on the ballot, the resemblance could grow.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.