by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is having a sizzling first-term.
The former U.S. Senator, who until this day slaps the table top in describing his frustrations with the Senate, has overseen a burst of legislative activity not witnessed in years.
“Governor Dayton has ushered in the most productive period in Minnesota lawmaking in three, and possibly four decades,” University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Political Science Professor Larry Jacobs said in an email.
With Republicans in control of the Legislature, Dayton, ably assisted by two veteran Republican lawmakers, brought Vikings’ stadium legislation to his desk after a decade of inconclusive debate.
Although dismal electronic pull-tab revenues keep stadium funding dead center, the Pawlenty Administration’s stadium accomplishment consisted of a public hearing featuring homemade cardboard and plastic models.
“The stadium developed its own kind of momentum that was really pretty extraordinary,” Dayton said of the process culminating in Vikings’ owner Zigi Wilf peering over Dayton’s shoulder at a bill-signing ceremony complete with hecklers.
Of greater historic significance is the same-sex marriage legislation Dayton signed into law in May. The marriage issue has roiled at the State Capitol for a decade or more, sporadically attracting crowds in numbers rivaling any other issue.
Dayton signed into law landmark legislation creating a health care insurance exchange.Although originally thwarted by a district court ruling against an executive order, Dayton signed a bill that could result in unionization of child-care and long-term care providers.
Jacobs, for one, finds this highly symbolic, as other states, such as Wisconsin, are attempting to roll back or limit unions, he said.
Still, Dayton portrays himself as no pushover.
He insisted on a higher vote threshold in the unionization legislation than the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wanted, Dayton said.
And he said “No” to a request by Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union, to postpone teacher evaluations, he said.
Dayton ran for a governor on a tax-the-rich message — he often holds two figures aloft to indicate the top two percent — and promised more school funding every year as governor.
Now assisted by a Democratic-led House and Senate, Dayton signed into law the creation of a fourth-tier income tax bracket and slated $485 million in additional funding to schools.
Additionally, a two-year, higher education tuition freeze was passed.
“I think the benefits for people are going to be enormous,” Dayton said.
“And I share that credit with the DFL Legislature,” he said.
Tom Horner, former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate who ran against Dayton in 2010, believes Dayton is making good on campaign promises.
“He has achieved most of what he said he would do,” Horner said.
Dayton, while quick to point out perceived successes, injected a customary note of self-depreciation during a recent interview.
Asked if the administration was on a roll, Dayton quipped the roll, if there, resulted from colliding with the Legislature.
“There’s a lot more to be done,” Dayton said.
Republicans portray Dayton as misdirecting a state budget they set on true course, of punishing success, of stifling business, of overreaching.
Horner, who proposed a sales-tax expansion as a gubernatorial candidate, said Dayton folded on his sales-tax proposal.
“I think that was a huge, missed opportunity,” Horner said.
Democrats are throwing millions of dollars into education, Horner said.
But it’s spending that fuels the status quo, Horner said.
Jacobs, too, views Dayton as largely abandoning tax reform and simply grabbing the cash.
“For sure, the Border Wars are on,” Jacobs said of the economic fallout.
Still, Jacobs credits Dayton with shrewdness in “slicing off” or sidestepping unpopular issues.
For instance, Dayton supported gay marriage but skipped gun control — the latter a “hornets nest” threatening his coalition, Jacobs said.
He taxed cigarettes, but didn’t tax booze.
Dayton adamantly rejects the idea his administration is reform light.
“We are transforming state government from the inside,” Dayton said “The previous administration cared nothing about state government.”
But the state and national economies are still “sputtering,” Dayton said.
“So most people aren’t going to perceive because Mark Dayton is governor, life is better in Minnesota,” he said.
Indeed, Dayton foresees upcoming years as of continual challenge.
“It’s going to be a tough decade,” he said.
“And that means politicians don’t get very popular, or stay very popular,” Dayton said.
Although Dayton is known for serving single terms, for months the governor has said that he intends to seek reelection.
“I have every intention for running for two terms,” Dayton said.
“Much of that (perceived progress in state government) would be lost if I only had one term,” he said.
“My philosophy is do what’s best for Minnesota and take the consequences,” Dayton said.
Hamline University Public Affairs Professor David Schultz views Dayton in a “terrific political position” as he moves towards the 2014 election.
The state government shutdown is in the past, and Dayton benefitted from the Republican implosion last election, Schultz said in an email.
Republicans currently don’t seem to have a strong message or a strong field of candidates, he said.
“While Dayton could have been more aggressive in terms of making some structural reforms to taxes and government structure, he is succeeding in terms of putting more money into some very popular programs,” Schultz said of education.
“Politically he is playing it very well,” he said.
But Jacobs views Republicans as having two powerful opportunities to challenge Dayton. Gay marriage has “lit a fire” under social conservatives, he said.
And Dayton could be vulnerable to the charge that he wasted the huge education funding increase by dropping state education assessment standards.
The question is, which electorate shows up, Jacobs said.
“If it’s the 2012 DFL-heavy electorate, then Dayton wins this debate. If 2010 conservative-tilted electorate shows up, Dayton may lose,” Jacobs said.
Horner views Dayton going into 2014 fairly secure.
“I think the governor is in pretty good shape for reelection,” Horner said.
The Republican Party endorsement process, Horner said, is “fairly crippling” to Republican candidates because of an overly heavy emphasis on social issues.
Republicans’ best chance for defeating Dayton, Horner argued, is for the state business community to back a moderate Arne Carlson-style candidate in the primary.
Dayton, 66, recently became a first-time grandfather, grandson Hugo Benjamin Dayton being born on March 27 to son Eric and daughter-in-law Cory.
Asked whether becoming a grandfather changed his view of life, Dayton spoke of the brevity of public service, the brevity of life.
“If I believe something, I better act on it now than wait,” he said.
Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]