Marching undeterred into enemy territory, Gov. Mark Dayton took no prisoners Thursday night.
With new Vikings coach — and lobbyist? — Leslie Frazier in the audience, Dayton told about 1,500 business leaders, legislators, government officials and lobbyists at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s legislative priorities dinner to strap on their helmets.
The political ride from now until May 23, when the Legislature must adjourn, is going to be a rough one.
“With your importance comes responsibility,” Dayton somberly, bluntly, told the throng of corporate types, office holders and policy wonks at St. Paul’s RiverCentre. “Many of the decisions we will be forced to make in the coming months will be difficult ones. The challenges confronting us are enormous . . . Some sincerely believe that all we need to do is apply a couple of our respective campaign slogans to solving them and we can all be home by Valentine’s Day. I disagree.”
Cupid wasn’t in this room. This was no rousing, feel-good, back-slapping speech. In some ways, it was a collection of some of Dayton’s campaign trail greatest hits, filled with the economic and financial statistics he has mastered. But it was told to an audience filled mostly with folks who wished he weren’t their governor.
“I’m very delighted to be with all of you here tonight,” he said at the start of his remarks. “I mean it both facetiously and seriously when I say that one of the great features of our democracy is that you and some of your friends and allies could spend three-and-a-half-million dollars to defeat me in an election and, after it’s over, invite me for dinner.”
But like an annoying cousin who can’t help himself from talking about politics at the holiday table, Dayton delivered an, at times, passionate lecture on the state of Minnesota’s budget, its work force and the need for the business community to come to terms with “the hard facts” of a state that — all things considered — is sinking in key national economic and educational rankings.
Property taxes key
His speech, which he wrote himself and by hand, was intended, Dayton told reporters later, as a “starting point” for the intellectual and political confrontation sure to come with the new Republican-controlled Legislature.
As he said often during his campaign, the “no-new-taxes” scenario of the last eight years under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty simply wasn’t so.
Dayton cited huge increases in property taxes that have hit middle-class families and the companies that many in the audience own or operate. He noted how taxes have been cut for nearly two decades in Minnesota but pointed out that per capita income hasn’t grown and the gap between the rich and the middle class has widened. Meanwhile, taxes on the wealthy have been reduced more than on the middle class.
“During the ‘quote’ no-new-taxes era of the past years,” Dayton said, total property taxes on home owners and businesses increased from $4 billion to $7 billion, an increase of 75 percent. He noted that Minnesota businesses pay, on average, four times more in property taxes than corporate taxes.
“Any further discussion of no new taxes in Minnesota must not just include property taxes, it must start with property taxes,” he declared.
He said that “it’s been convenient for some state policy makers” to cut government aid to counties and school districts and “to wash their hands of any responsibility of the unavoidable consequences.”
He said that even if he and the Legislature cut the operating expenses of all state agencies — closing state prisons, stopping snow plowing and sanding, shutting down every park-and-rest stop — that would trim only $3.5 billion from the state budget deficit, barely half of the estimated $6.2 billion shortfall.
“For anyone who thinks this session is going to be easy and painless, please share your magic potion with the rest of us,” Dayton said, “or else get to work reading and understanding the state budget as I have.”
As he spoke, he stood all alone in front of the 150 or so tables, at his bully pulpit with two large TV screens on both sides of the room, enlarging him for all to see. It was so hushed in the massive hall you could have heard a left-over “Vote for Emmer” campaign button drop from someone’s pinstriped suit jacket.
Frazier as lobbyist
Speaking of whom … former Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost to Dayton by about 9,000 votes, was on hand, looking refreshed, embracing former colleagues and supporters, and still pondering his future.
Also there was Leslie Frazier, who, we thought, was promoted to Vikings head coach earlier this week to win games, not votes for a new stadium. But before Dayton spoke, Frazier was working the concourse outside the hall like a seasoned lobbyist. He spent a good amount of time schmoozing with new House Speaker Kurt Zellers.
Minutes later, when Dayton came to the dais, the governor acknowledged Frazier and said, “I know that in your heart of hearts I’m sure most of you would rather hear from Coach Frazier than from me.”
By the time his 26-minute lecture was over, that was for sure.
On the other side
Chamber of Commerce President David Olson said he didn’t view Dayton’s speech as some sort of in-yer-face assault on his organization’s positions on taxes or its support of Emmer during the campaign. “We were honored he was here,” Olson said, but he added, “I haven’t run into many business people that say now’s the time to raise my taxes.”
Olson’s view — and the official position of the Chamber — is that the current $32 billion general fund budget is “adequate to solve our most pressing problems and build the infrastructure that the development of our economy requires.”
“Everyone talks about the deficit,” Olson told reporters after Dayton’s talk. “We’d like to talk about how to spend the $32 billion . . . Let’s prioritize that money first, and then talk about [new] things.”
Here are other Chamber priorities.
Olson, who sat with Dayton during a dinner of chicken, steak, green beans and new potatoes, said their chat was cordial: “We know where we disagree … I think he was setting up the debate.”
It’s one that will start with Dayton soon producing a budget for the Legislature, followed by another state revenue forecast in February, followed by the Republican-controlled Legislature’s budget, followed by that rough ride of cuts or redesign or tax reform or …
In his speech, Dayton urged the business community to focus on jobs and education, particularly the state’s colleges and universities. Again, all fact-based, he talked of Minnesota’s falling positions on K-12 and higher ed funding, compared with other states, and even teacher salaries being 2 percent below the national average.
The scion of the Dayton-cum-Target department store lineage said he learned from his father, Bruce, that “A company’s business did better when it’s customers were doing better. Minnesota businesses do better when their customers, the people of Minnesota, are doing better. To close the circle, our people have done better because our schools, colleges and universities have historically supplied them with superior education.”
Later in the evening, legislative leaders from both major parties engaged in a panel discussion of key issues. It confirmed the difficulties that Dayton forecast, with GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch downplaying the size of a potential bonding bill, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk predicting a large bonding proposal to jump-start the construction industry.
Koch, meanwhile, talked of her imminent legislation to lift a ban on nuclear plants — a Chamber priority. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen warned about the high costs of plant construction.
“None of us at the state Capitol wants to do anything that will harm our state’s business climate,” Dayton declared earlier, urging the business community to bring its talent, expertise and, “most of all, your willingness to work together for a better Minnesota” to the upcoming policy debate.
“My office is always open to you,” the new governor told his adversaries, “You don’t even have to bring a protest sign.”
That brought some laughter, and a smattering of applause.