Minnesota Sens. Tom Bakk of Cook and David Tomassoni of Chisholm surprised many last year by leaving the DFL party after winning 2020 elections as Democrats.
The pair of newly-minted independents said the move was driven by a frustration with partisan politics and that it would give them more influence over legislation than if they were in the political minority.
Bakk and Tomassoni — nicknamed Bakkassoni by some at the Capitol — said they wouldn’t vote strictly with Republicans or Democrats. But the party flip effectively widened the GOP’s previous one-vote majority in the Senate, and Republicans in turn named Tomassoni chair of the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee and Bakk the chair of the Capital Investment Committee.
Their full impact on the legislative session isn’t known yet, as a deal on the higher education budget and policy was just released and it’s unclear whether lawmakers will approve a bonding bill this year. But the pair of independents did weigh in on several key issues over the course of the 2021 regular session. Here’s how Bakk and Tomassoni, who declined to comment for this article, acted on some prominent and hot-button legislation:
Mask wearing on the Senate floor
Masks on the Senate floor were often controversial in 2021.
Before vaccines were widespread, Democrats pushed for them to be required for legislators in the chamber, while Republicans wanted to encourage but not mandate them. On Jan. 7, the Senate altered a DFL plan and instead voted to “strongly” encourage masking. Tomassoni and Bakk were not the deciding votes on the amendment, but they sided with the GOP, and the measure passed 36-31.
Early in the 2021 session, Gov. Tim Walz proposed spending $35 million to fund a police presence during and after the murder trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. Republicans countered with a plan to draw from Minneapolis’ share of local government aid, a state subsidy for basic government services, if the city (or any city in the future) didn’t pay any mutual aid expenses it had promised.
Bakk voted against the GOP plan, saying in committee that he was opposed to messing with local government aid because the money is important to communities in his district. Tomassoni voted yes on the proposal in mid-February. He and Bakk voted no on a later version of the Republican bill in early March that didn’t include local government aid provisions but did alter a disaster recovery account.
Republicans passed a bill in February that would ban Walz from unilaterally closing schools to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local districts could still move to remote learning under the plan. The measure passed on a 40-27 vote. Tomassoni, Bakk and a handful of Democrats sided with the GOP. The bill stalled in the DFL-majority House.
White supremacists police ban
In mid-April, Democrats tried to amend a bill on the Senate floor to ban people with known ties to white supremacists groups or known white supremacist views from being police officers. Some in the GOP said they worried such a law would run afoul of free speech and association protections in the Constitution. Senate President Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said Democrats couldn’t propose the amendment under Senate rules. When the chamber voted 36-31 to uphold his decision, Bakk and Tomassoni voted with the GOP.
Banning recreational wolf hunts
Bakk and Tomassoni have long been more conservative than many DFLers on natural resource and environment issues, favoring Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project, copper-nickel mining and wolf hunting even before they became independents.
DFLers in late April tried to amend a bill in order to ban the state from holding recreational wolf hunts. The Department of Natural Resources is currently considering the issue. The Senate voted down the amendment 33 to 34. Most Democrats voted to ban the wolf hunt and most Republicans voted to keep the option open. But a few lawmakers crossed the aisle. Tomassoni and Bakk voted against the amendment, meaning they wanted to preserve the state’s ability to hold a recreational wolf hunt.
The independents also voted for the final bill, an omnibus containing natural resources and environmental policy and spending, which required the state to hold a recreational wolf hunt. The legislation didn’t gain any traction in the House.
Republicans in early May passed a bill that would require voters to have a government-issued ID card to vote. The measure passed 34-32, with all Democrats and Tomassoni in opposition. Bakk, who opposed a constitutional voter ID requirement on the ballot in 2012, was absent from the Legislature that day. Majority House Democrats oppose the voter ID measure, which hasn’t passed the Legislature.
Equal Rights Amendment
Democrats in early May tried to force a Senate vote on whether an Equal Rights Amendment should be added to the Minnesota Constitution. If approved by the Legislature, and later by voters, the constitutional amendment would say: “Equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of sex.”
DFLers needed 41 votes to bring the measure to the floor for consideration by skirting around Senate rules. The move failed on a 32-33 vote. Bakk voted against bringing up the ERA, while Tomassoni voted in favor of it. Sens. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, voted with Democrats to bring up the ERA for consideration.
Bakk’s vote frustrated his Democratic colleagues. Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, said on Twitter that Bakk was “once an equal rights supporter.” She also said he was the deciding vote.
“It would have taken eight or nine more votes to get that bill out of committee,” Bakk said during a heated speech on the Senate floor later in May. He didn’t explain his vote but added: “For somebody to post on public social media a blatant lie, that is not the decorum, the customs of this institution.” (McEwen corrected her initial tweet.)
Restricting bail organizations
Republicans passed a bill to sharply limit nonprofit organizations like the Minnesota Freedom Fund that bail out people alleged to have committed crimes. The Freedom Fund says it’s balancing a system that favors rich people, often who are white, who can afford bail. But Republicans have taken issue with the organization for bailing out some people accused of violent crimes, or who later committed a crime while out on bail.
Bakk and Tomassoni voted with the GOP in favor of the bill, which passed the Senate 36-30 but hasn’t moved in the House.
Walz’s emergency powers
Senate Republicans have repeatedly tried to rescind Walz’s emergency powers exercised during the COVID-19 pandemic to implement regulations aimed at curbing the spread of the disease, such as mask mandates and business closures.
When they were Democrats, Tomassoni and Bakk voted against removing Walz’s power in five special sessions over the course of 2020. After they became independents, they reversed course, voting in a seventh special session Dec. 14 to end Walz’s powers. At the time, Walz had implemented many restrictions on businesses and public life amid an enormous surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived that day.
Tomassoni and Bakk voted again to remove Walz’s emergency powers in March during the start of the 2021 regular session. House Democrats have blocked all efforts to end Walz’s emergency powers.
The Legislature in May passed a bill to increase goals for utility savings and update Minnesota’s Conservation Improvement Program. Supporters say it will lead to fewer carbon emissions, new jobs and lower bills for customers, while opponents worry it will hurt the propane industry or lead to higher energy rates. The Senate voted 58-9 to approve the bill. Nine Republicans voted against the bill, but Bakk and Tomassoni voted for the measure.
A Republican bill on health and human services policy passed the Senate in April would have implemented new licensing regulations and other requirements for facilities that provide abortion. Democrats tried to strip the larger bill of the licensure policy, but failed on a 30-36 vote. Tomassoni voted with Democrats and Bakk voted with the GOP to keep the new regulations in the bill. NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota endorsed Bakk in 2020, but not Tomassoni. Democrats in the House haven’t approved the bill.
Democrats tried to amend a Senate Republican budget plan for education to strip a provision creating “education savings accounts,” which provide state funding to some parents for children to attend private schools. Bakk voted with the GOP to keep the savings accounts, which are sometimes referred to as private-school vouchers, while Tomassoni voted with the DFL to remove the accounts. After the DFL amendment failed, however, both voted for the education omnibus budget bill. House majority Democrats don’t support the vouchers.
Transgender youth athletes
The Senate Republican education omnibus bill included language that aims to bar transgender girls from playing high school sports on girls’ teams. In late April, Democrats tried to amend the bill to remove the ban and replace it with a measure saying no student can be excluded from sports or other activities based on gender and directing schools to ensure girls’ and boys’ teams have comparable resources. The amendment failed on a 29-36 vote. Bakk and Tomassoni voted with the GOP to keep the original legislation intact and later voted in favor of the larger omnibus bill. The House opposes the idea.
Senate lawmakers passed a bill in April to phase out Walz’s moratorium on most evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure was negotiated by Republicans and Democrats and passed with a veto-proof margin, but hasn’t moved in the DFL-led House. Tomassoni and Bakk voted for the Senate bill.
Bakk sponsored a bill that would ensure forgiven loans through the federal COVID-19 relief Paycheck Protection Program would not be taxed by the state. It passed the Senate 55-12, with Tomassoni and many Democrats voting in favor. The bill stalled in the House, but legislative leaders have said they will pass a measure to not tax forgiven PPP loans as part of the final deal over a two-year operating budget.
House and Senate leaders announced this week they struck a deal on higher education budget and policy, one of the few areas of the state budget where an agreement has been finalized ahead of an expected special session June 14. Total general fund spending on the higher education system would be increased by $100 million over the next two years to $3.5 billion, down slightly from a $120 million House DFL plan and up from the Senate plan released by Tomassoni. In the budget deal, the University of Minnesota would receive $38.5 million in new operations spending while the Minnesota State System would receive $56.4 million. That’s less than in the House DFL plan — and what the schools asked for — but more than in the Senate proposal.
The bill directs the Minnesota State system to not increase tuition by more than 3.5 percent for the 2021 and 2022 school years and says schools can refund or credit students for some online courses in the 2020 school year if federal COVID-19 relief funds can pay for it. Tomassoni’s original plan included a 5 percent tuition cut for Minnesota State and 3 percent reduction for the University of Minnesota.
Senate GOP omnibus bills
Senate Republicans passed 12 so-called “omnibus” bills this year, which wrap GOP policy and spending proposals for a specific issue area like education or taxes into one massive bill. Omnibus bills are typically partisan affairs, a wish list and expression of priorities for whichever party is moving them.
In perhaps the greatest sign of Bakk and Tomassoni’s alignment with the GOP, the pair of independents voted for all 12 omnibus bills in the Senate.
Yet Senate Republicans also won at least one Democratic vote on all 12 bills and earned many more on some of them. That means Bakk and Tomassoni, who were already among the more conservative Democrats before they switched parties, weren’t completely alone in siding with the GOP. By contrast, few Republicans crossed party lines on omnibus bills in the DFL-majority House. Legislators are still negotiating final compromise omnibus bills.