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Dayton’s Big Idea? It’s been a long time since a Minnesota governor went ‘Big’

Gov. Mark Dayton
Office of the Governor
Gov. Mark Dayton has argued that he has done the due diligence needed to advance his Big Idea.

In recent years, Minnesota has had a governor with big personal ambitions and a governor with a big ego.

But a Big Idea?

No matter your position on Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget/tax proposal, there’s no denying it’s Big.

“This idea is at least as big as Wendy Anderson’s Minnesota Miracle in 1971,” said Roger Moe, a DFLer who was in the Senate for more than three decades, 22 of those years as the Senate’s majority leader, meaning he worked in close relationship with a long line of governors.

“These are fundamental tax policy changes he’s talking about,” he said.

Dayton to make his case Wednesday

Dayton gets the chance to make his case to skeptical legislators and Minnesota citizens Wednesday night in his 7 p.m. State of the State address.

Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, who is among the doubters, takes a different view of Dayton’s Big Idea.

He believes “planning and prudence” should be the Big Ideas of governance.

Dayton’s idea may be Big, but Carlson doesn’t believe it’s well thought out. He’s not sure that the Dayton idea, which would create a fourth income tax tier and broaden the sales tax base at the same time the rate is lowered, meets either of those criteria.

In terms of planning, Carlson doesn’t think that Dayton has created “constituencies” ready for his ideas.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson rejects plan

In terms of prudence, Carlson is not ready to accept the idea that Minnesota government needs $2 billion more, which is the amount of increased revenue projected in the Dayton proposal. (Initially, half of that $2 billion would be used to pay down the state budget deficit, and most of the rest would go to increased aid to all levels of public education.)

Although Anderson’s legacy is the Minnesota Miracle (which involved lowering property taxes and raising income taxes to create statewide equity in school funding), Carlson believes Anderson’s Best Idea was the creation of a committee that was to study periodically the effectiveness of state government.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
JonathunderFormer Gov. Arne Carlson

“In Minnesota, we tend to follow our Scandinavian heritage,” Carlson said. “We’re liberal on the social issues but prudent when it comes to spending money. But Democrats are as uncomfortable with the word ‘prudence’ as most Republicans are with the word ‘tax.’ ”

Minnesotans, he believes, have to be sold very deliberately on why they should be spending more.

Dayton has argued that he has done the due diligence needed to advance his Big Idea. Cuts were made, virtually across state government, in the last legislative session, and his revenue commissioner, Myron Frans, spent more than a year on the road listening to constituencies.

The messages Frans says he heard: Get a grip on property taxes, bring stability to state government finances and fund education.

The proposed fourth-tier income tax increase follows through on the “tax the rich” theme that propelled Dayton into office. The proposed changes in the sales tax, he says, will bring stability to future state budgets.

Big Ideas always ‘risky’

Politically, Big Ideas always are risky, and Dayton certainly is facing heat from a wide swath of critics. Even Wisconsin pols have jumped on Dayton’s Big Idea.

On Tuesday, for example, Wisconsin Rep. Erik Severson, R-Osceola, released what he described as an open letter to Minnesota businesses.

Roger Moe
Roger Moe

“I believe it is important to outline the options for businesses in Minnesota by letting them know that here in Wisconsin we value job creators,’’ Severson wrote. “Governor Dayton’s budget proposal, especially his tax on business-to-business transactions, will put a stress on businesses and reveal that Wisconsin is a better place to do business.”

Despite the blowback, which isn’t quieting down, Moe believes that Dayton is in a unique position to keep pushing his Big Idea.

“The way I read Mark is that very few politicians get a second chance,” Moe said. “Mark understands that. I can see him saying to himself, ‘I’m getting that second chance and, by golly, I’m willing to roll the dice.’ ”

Dayton’s first big political chance was as a U.S. senator. Even he believes he did not succeed in that role. But to date, his approval ratings are high, even after pushing a Vikings stadium idea that faces questionable public support.

Dayton’s ‘second chance’

Given this second chance, Moe says, Dayton has a freedom few politicians ever have. He’s not seeking career advancement, as Gov. Tim Pawlenty was, meaning he doesn’t have to worry about offending those in various political bases.

Former Gov. Wendell Anderson
MinnPost photo by Jana FreibandFormer Gov. Wendell Anderson

His plan, although bigger than most gubernatorial visions, does meet the goals that most governors have, according to Moe, who was a legislator during the gubernatorial terms of Anderson, Al Quie, Rudy Perpich, Carlson and Jesse Ventura.

From Moe’s perspective, governors have two goals:

• For the time they’re in charge, governors want to make sure they manage things properly. They do everything possible to avoid such calamities as prison riots or collapsing bridges or scandals within their administration. (Think of Carlson as the ultimate governor/manager.)

• They want to be able “to see over the horizon” and imagine that something they pursued as governor will be in place in the future. In other words, a legacy. (Think of Ventura’s support of light rail, and, to a lesser extent, Pawlenty’s support of the Big Lake commuter line, which was not necessarily popular within his own party.)

Different political climate

But these are difficult times for a politician to try to do anything Big. The political climate is substantially different from the time when Anderson was pushing what would become known as the Minnesota Miracle.

Warren Spannaus, who was the state’s attorney general at the time, spoke of just one little example of how much more friendly politics were four decades ago. Spannaus, a DFLer, recalled that when he traveled to Moorhead, he’d stay at the home of Doug Sillers, a Republican/conservative state senator.

Warren Spannaus
Warren Spannaus

The key legislator in support of Anderson’s “miracle,” which would increase the amount of state school funding from 43 percent to 70 percent, was Senate Majority Leader Stanley Holmquist, a conservative.  (This was during the period before legislators carried party labels. Instead, they were labeled “conservatives’’ and “liberals.”) Holmquist, a school superintendent in his civilian world, was hugely supportive.

The two men were such great friends that Anderson would one day deliver the eulogy at Holmquist’s funeral.

Anderson said finding political allies from across the aisle wasn’t nearly so difficult then.

“In those days, many Republicans were progressives, and most of them didn’t think they had God on their side,’’ Anderson said.  “But beyond that, there was so much more socializing then than there is now. We’d go to a couple of different places on Rice Street and have beers together.”

There were other social events, too, where conservatives and liberals would gather. Anderson recalled that when, at age 25,  he was elected to the state House in 1959, he was invited to a gathering of legislators at the St. Paul Athletic Club.

“It was the first time in my life I’d had shrimp cocktail,” he said.

These days, such perks as free dinners would violate legislative ethics rules. But one result of these rules has been less social mixing of legislators,  more partisanship and less civility, Anderson believes.

Persistence a plus

Can Dayton, even with DFLers controlling both legislative bodies, pass his Big Idea in today’s political environment?

“I sincerely hope so,” said Anderson, “but it’s going to be very difficult. All I would say that is if he can’t pass it this time, he needs to keep coming back.”

Dayton often seems to compare himself with former Gov. Rudy Perpich, who gave him his start in state politics by naming him commissioner of economic development.

Moe, though, says Dayton is much more like Anderson.

“Rudy didn’t mind throwing a whole bunch of spaghetti against the wall because he knew some of it would stick,” he said. “He brought a bundle of energy to the office.” (For some of his ideas, however, Perpich ended up with the title “Gov. Goofy,” bestowed by some of his critics.)

Dayton, like Anderson, is more focused, Moe said.

“And there’s one other thing about Mark,” Moe said. “He’s very persistent.”

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Comments (2)

DFL Dream budget

“Big Idea” = Tax and Spend

Where are the reforms? Where are the increased efficiencies? Where are the new ideas?

Dayton promised to tax the rich, but all Minnesotans will be paying much more in order to fund the DFL special interests groups that give the DFL the money.

Governor Dayton's State of the State Address

Governor Dayton gave an amazing address on Tuesday. He was brave and audacious at lauding educational leaders from early childhood to Higher Ed. Every citizen should want adequate funding to bring back our educational leadership in the country. As a retired administrator from MPS and League of Women Voters member who monitored education funding for the past 10 years, I can't tell you how I respect Gov. Dayton for his relationships with all educators. In contrast his predecessor lambasted and villified teachers, and cut funding from preschool to higher ed. The Republicans did not have an early childhood committee under their leadership.

We are national leaders for establishing the health exchange. Commissioner Jessen and Gov. Dayhton care about the low income Minnesotans and they are leading the country also to increase the number of people who will have health care.

He educated us about jobs, and compared us to neighboring states. He addressed Climate Change and Infrastructure, and more.

Gov. Dayton did not speak at all about taxing and spending but he is a visionary. What Republican family would not want our education system or health care to be exemplary?
Governor Dayton is an unassuming in style, a humanitarian, and very much a team player.