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.
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.