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Dayton talks about the pivotal meeting with supporters that helped end the shutdown

Gov. Mark Dayton hands a pen to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie after signing the last of the budget bills ending the state shutdown.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Gov. Mark Dayton hands a pen to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie after signing the last of the budget bills ending the state shutdown.

The key meeting leading up to the resolution of the state's shutdown came July 13 at the governor's mansion.

"Residence," corrected Gov. Mark Dayton. "Democrats don't call it a mansion — they call it the residence."

By either description, the place was filled with top advisers to the governor and leaders of several unions, along with DFL Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.

Dayton called the meeting to announce that he was not going to be able to win any tax increases and that he was going to accept an idea originally proposed by Republican legislative leaders to create new revenue by delaying more school funds and selling tobacco bonds.

"Gravitas," said Dayton about the vibes in the room.

Some union leaders upset
Several of the union leaders were upset that the governor was going to yield on the "tax the rich theme" that had carried him to the narrowest of victories in November. They wanted to keep government shut down for at least another week.

A strategy session for continuing the shutdown had been scheduled for July 19, which, as it turned out, was the day that the Legislature was in special session, lurching toward passage of the budget deal.

There was, Dayton said in an interview on Thursday, no single "Eureka!" moment when he decided it was futile to go on with the shutdown.

Rather, there were a series of things that led to his decision.

His administration was receiving mixed reviews from the public.

 The administration took comfort in polls that showed most Minnesotans supported the governor's approach — cuts and some tax increases — to balance the budget.

But there was also public discontent.

"The public sentiment was that there needed to be an end," Dayton said. "They didn't care about the outcome. They just wanted it over."

There were two other considerations as well.

Dayton said that both Bakk and Thissen had told him that there was growing restlessness within the DFL caucuses. There had to be a way to "end it," legislators were beginning to say.

Dayton feared even worse GOP budget offer
Dayton also said that he was hearing that Republican leaders were getting prepared to come forward with a new budget proposal "that would have been more Draconian" than the one he had vetoed at the end of the regular session in May.

Dayton decided that the shutdown could run "through July, September, December and they [Republicans] weren't going to move."

So, he unveiled his plan to those who had been his strongest supporters. It was one of those "very difficult" moments during the shutdown.

"These are your friends, good friends," said Dayton. "I wanted their reaction. I was making the case (for his plan to end the stalemate)."

Some of the union leaders were hurt and angry, although Dayton said others seemed to understand that something had to change to end the shutdown.

Publicly, the union supporters displayed their anger with stone-cold silence.

It wasn't until AFTER the special session, when the Legislature had passed the bills needed to re-open government, that unions issued statements.

Those statements displayed more contempt for Republicans than pats on the back for the governor. Those statements also called for a "tax the rich" solution to the state's budget problems, the solution that Dayton finally had dropped.

Eliot Seide
MinnPost/Bill Kelley
Eliot Seide

AFSCME's Eliot Seide, Dayton's first and strongest union supporter, issued a statement vowing that the union "will ramp up its tax the rich campaign at the Minnesota State Fair."

Noticeable in its absence from Seide's statement was Dayton's name.

But, in interviews, other union leaders said that "in time'' union disappointment with the governor will fade.

(It is relevant to note that the largest public employee unions, AFSME and MAPE, have open contracts with the state. Talks, which stopped during the shutdown, likely will resume again in two or three weeks, after all parties have had a chance to take deep breaths.)

Negotiation dynamics surprised Dayton
To his surprise, Dayton said the negotiations did not unfold the way he expected.

For his part, the governor said that he thought there would be the same type of "intense negotiations" with Republican leaders during the shutdown that existed in the days leading up to July 1. Instead, he said, there was virtually no contact.

The one call he received from Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch came 15 minutes before he was to leave for St. Cloud on July 12 on what was to be the start of a tour to various parts of the state to talk about the shutdown.

Koch, the governor said, offered to join him in St. Cloud.

Dayton declined the offer.

"It's hard to take it seriously when you get a call 15 minutes before you're scheduled to leave," said Dayton.

He made the trip to St. Cloud and another to Rochester before reaching the decision to pull the plug on the idea of winning any form of new tax revenue from Republicans. Instead, he came back to the idea that Republicans had presented to him in the last hours before shutdown — get revenue from a school funding shift and the sale of the bonds.

"It looks the same now as it did when I first saw it," Dayton said Thursday. "I'm very unhappy with the idea of borrowing. But it just became increasingly clear they weren't going to budge. They rejected the ideas brought up by the Mondale-Carlson group. They rejected other taxes [outside a fourth-tier income tax]. Something had to change. Someone had to step forward."

The deal was done, with the understanding that most of the objectionable policy provisions that Republicans had weaved into the budget bills would disappear.

The governor put no pressure on Bakk or Thissen to tell DFLers to support the package, particularly the funding package.

"I said myself that I wouldn't vote for it," he said of the funding aspects of the settlement.

The arm-twisting was left to House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Koch.

Dayton had planned to start his Thursday by welcoming state employees back to work.

"The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak," he said.

Exhausted, he decided to remain at the mansion/residence, where there remain boxes that have not yet been unpacked since his move to Summit Avenue in January.

A chance to unwind — and to govern
For the most part, Dayton seems guarded. Even in one-on-one conversations, he sticks to talking points when he's talking about political matters.

It's when he talks about his new pup, Mingo, that a softer — more genuine — side pops up.

"I don't want a vacation," said Dayton of his plans for the next few months.

But, with the budget problem resolved for the short term, Dayton likely will have more free time on his hands than he's had since he started campaigning for his job so long ago.

Much of that time will be spent in the backyard.

"I throw Frisbees to Mingo," he said.

When the dog tires of retrieving the Frisbees, the governor and the dog play "keep-away."

When they tire of that, the two play tug of war.

All the while, he said, Mesabi, the aging German shepherd, looks on with only mild interest.

Mostly, though, Dayton said he looks forward to going about the business of being governor in an environment of normalcy.

"I'm looking forward to leading the executive branch of government," he said. "We have fantastic commissioners. … I want to be focusing on job creation. I want to work with the commissioners and bring about reform. I wasn't here before. I have nothing to defend. I'm not afraid of reform. I'm responsible for my time in office."

Some sort of reforms may be possible. Dayton, Zellers and Koch came out of the tensions of the last six months with surprisingly positive relationships among one another. (That's a dramatic difference from the relationships Gov. Tim Pawlenty had with legislative leaders.)

Additionally, Dayton went out of his way to meet with a handful of the more moderate Republican legislators.

He has asked rookie Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, to participate in a task force to study and reform Minnesota's tax system.

Dayton knows, of course, that the very phrase "task force" typically is a government synonym for oblivion.

Laughing, he admitted, "Every governor since before the previous century has had a [tax] task force."

Yet, there appears to be growing sentiment among more good-government types that the state needs to rely more on the sales tax and less on income tax to create more stable funding.

Howe is a huge believer in a "consumption tax." At the same time, he'd like to see the income tax all but disappear.

Dayton, of course, believes there is only one fair tax, a progressive income tax.

"The sales tax is regressive," he said, "but not as regressive as a property tax."

Perhaps, then, in the coming months, the stage can be set for the Legislature to deal with some level of tax reform.

Dayton's pragmatic side
But Dayton is also a pragmatist.

Despite the public contempt of all pols over the shutdown, he doubts that political rhetoric and vitriol is going to diminish in the coming months.

"The clash of ideas and ideals is always going to be around," he said.

And what makes that clash louder, he said, is the 24-hour news cycle. Now, any pol who wants to be heard "has to turn up the volume" on his or her rhetoric.

Beyond that, we're headed to another election, which means the ugly ads, the fear-mongering and the finger-pointing will be building.

Dayton and his own party will be a part of that noise.

In the wake of the shutdown, does the DFL, so weak in the suburbs, have a message for suburban voters?

"Oh yes," the governor said.

Voters in the suburbs understand that the resolution to this budget battle "was fiscally irresponsible."

DFLers, including Dayton, keep pointing to the budget deal as "the Republican plan."

"And then there's the social policy," Dayton said. "A lot of the social policy things they [Republicans] want is not going to play well.''

And so far, the response Dayton said he's been receiving from the public about ending the shutdown has been positive.

"A lot of people are thanking me, saying they're just glad it's over," Dayton said.

But there also are a lot of pretty unhappy people among even his strongest supporters.

"There's unhappiness," Dayton said. "But over time, I think many of them will realize how much we gained."

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (19)

"But over time, I think many of them will realize how much we gained."

Not so much. This deal is bad for the state of Minnesota, period. More borrowing, more spending, and more denial of the looming structural deficit facing our state.

This budget deal speaks to the lack of leadership from each of the three principals involved in this deal. Dayton, Koch and Zellers either lacked the experience or the imagination to move the state to a more sound fiscal position. Rookies......

Once again Democrats prove that the best they can do is win an election. Absoolutely no idea what to do after that.

Jackson, The same can be said for the republicans.

I say MINGO is the star of this story.

Then try to visualize Koch or even Zellers, trying to catch a frisbe? No way...

People keep talking about leadership as if they don't understand the outcome of the election. You can't vote a bunch of Republican extremists into the legislator and have Democratic governor and expect "leadership" to happen. We have a checks-n-balance system, no one can "lead" by themselves. Dayton had no choice, Republicans always shut the government when they get into power. Someone had to step up and end this and the Republicans were unwilling, or worse, incapable. The Republican party is completely broken as a governing body. This was always about the next election, not this shutdown. The Democrats have to take back enough legislative power to get their agenda passed.

I think the Democrats are in a good position if they can exploit it. The Republican own the shutdown and the budget and their social agenda is losing steam in a big way. If the Democrats can hammer the Republicans on their inflexibility and fiscal irresponsibility and provide a clear and attractive alternative i.e. tax the rich, and let's have a tolerant more pleasant society. Let's the cycle of never-ending crises that the Republicans promote. Let's stop screaming at each other about what we believe and start talking about what we know. Keep focused and simple and the Democrats can't lose. Now let's see how they screw it up.

Just to continue for a bit with my critique of the Democrats; my whole adult life I've watched them pull defeat out of the jaws of victory, they had a clean sweep on the federal level and they completely blew it. Now Dayton is talking about "reforming" government. Well, that's what the Republicans have been talking about for 30 years. To be clear, the Republicans have no interest in government, reformed or otherwise. They just want to dismantle and privatize. For decades Democrats have blown away one opportunity after another by buying into Republican rhetoric... it's a "me to" approach that saps away all their energy. When your message is indistinguishable from the other guys you give your supporters nothing to vote for. Under those circumstances it comes down to who's more passionate and committed, and the Republicans can pull it off.

Now I don't know what Dayton means by "reform", but if he means the same thing the Republicans mean, I'll never vote for him again. If he doesn't, he now has the problem of explaining what he means within the Republican rhetorical framework... bad move. Likewise, his "tax the rich" approach has legs but if he abandons it he's left with nothing, he'll look like a wounded puppy until he's voted out of office, and frankly he would deserve to be voted out of office.

Like many peeople I am unhappy with how the new state budget was financed. But the level of spending is right. The shutdown ended up with winners and losers. Most of the losers were people with little involvement in government decisions or in politics. This was not fair. With billions in essential services protected the Governor rightly concluded that there was no pressure on the R's to compromise on revenue. It didn't sit well with the public and there was no point in prolonging it. He did the right thing at the right time. Now, it's time for a new election and it's not far away.

"But there was also public discontent."

That's a carefully crafted way of saying, "They're made as hell and won't take this any more."

"This" is secrecy vs. transparency.

"This" is political vendetta vs. governing.

"This" is inheriting as a state the trickle-down disastrous aftermath of Tim Pawlenty's "I'd rather be president because this job is too hard for me" reign, and blaming our economic toxic waste site on Mark Dayton.

"This" is allowing party machinery to dictate to legislators. Minnesotans didn't elect Sutton and Brodkorb.

"This" is pretending that all is well, even temporarily. It's not.

"This" is stomping all over the rights (r-i-g-h-t-s) of Minnesotans and essentially saying, "Well, that's how we roll."

"This" is Minnesota at its very worst.

The sad part of all of this was that our country's and state's founders never imagined a bunch of government rulers who so hated government that they would rather trash it then give the slightest inch of some bizarre ideological view that people who want a decent – not a great – life are a burden on people so rich they don’t even know how rich they are.

This is so sad. The best lack all conviction
while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity.

What Paul (#5/#6) said.

Please note that this article highlighted the fact that the unions wanted to keep the shutdown going. Which is another way of saying, they wanted the shutdown in the first instance.

Rod (#10) ---

I'd say the Best are filled with passion and conviction. The only thing they need is the numbers in the legislature to defeat the Worst legislation ever written by ALEC and its corporate sponsors and introduced by its local members.

#15 ...and the centre cannot hold.

Haven't heard much from Margaret Anderson Kelliher on the shutdown or the state "budget". Be fun to get her perspective about the process thus far.

Dayton did the responsible thing in the midst of dealing with people who valued winning political points over being responsible leaders for their state.

I clearly heard republican leaders state after the shutdown was in effect that past deals were off the table and they might demand more concessions. To me this was the most revealing insight that this "grand" old party is actually more willing to gamble big on the backs of the poor and middle class just to ensure the wealthiest don't pay a dime more.

Also want to highlight part of Paul's comment earlier: "To be clear, the Republicans have no interest in government, reformed or otherwise. They just want to dismantle and privatize."

Dems need to stop living in the GOP's rotten frame and challenge it at its core.

Actually, wanting the shutdown to last for another week isn't that same as wanting it in the first place. There is a difference between dealing with a crises and creating a crises. The unions didn't promote the shutdown, but it was avoidable. Once it happened everyone involved tries to play it to their advantage. I think after a decade of being told how irrelevant government is the unions saw this as an opportunity for the public see how relevant it actually is.

Ooops, I meant to say "unavoidable" not avoidable in #14.

I supported the Governor throughout the shutdown & even found one of his lawn signs to put back up. But I have to say I was unhappy with the brusque treatment of Sen. Linda Berglin, caving to the Republican demand to exclude her from final negotiation sessions. If the Repubs were so frightened of Linda, Mark should have exploited that, rather than insult the "Mother of MinnesotaCare". Well, I guess it was time to take the sign down anyway.