Sitting in the sun room of the governor’s residence, where his two purebred German shepherds have taken over the backyard, Mark Dayton jokes that he doesn’t think about the future very much. The DFL governor is now in the middle of a campaign that is both his first and last bid for re-election. “I keep saying that a year from now I’ll either be in Biwabik or Bolivia,” Dayton said.
But the governor is well aware of the big issues he’ll face if he’s elected to a second term: ballooning infrastructure costs; a politically controversial sex offender treatment program; rising tensions between environmentalists and miners on the Iron Range; and the potential for a closely divided Legislature, to name a few.
He became more accustomed to the politics of the capitol during his first term, though he admits there are things he probably won’t try again, including a massive overhaul of the state’s tax system that crashed and burned when he pitched it nearly two years ago. But there are also plenty of things he’s open to, including extending tuition freezes to college students and shaking up the governing board of MNsure, the state’s oft-criticized health insurance exchange.
Here’s how Dayton said he would tackle some of these issues if he defeats his Republican opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, in November:
Dayton has been spending most of his time on the campaign trail touting his support for all-day kindergarten for students across the state, as well as the full repayment of money legislators borrowed from school districts to help patch budget deficits (he also borrowed from schools in the 2011 budget agreement with Republicans). Dayton cites those two issues as major accomplishments, but what’s next if he’s elected to a second term?
Plenty, he says: He’d like to expand early childhood education scholarships across the state and apply universal pre-kindergarten education to even younger learners. Dayton is also closely watching the results of a new program — running now in only some school districts — to get all kids reading by the third grade. If it’s successful, Dayton said he’d like to implement the program statewide. “We’ve set the blueprint, but now we really need to flesh it out,” Dayton said.
When it comes to higher education, Dayton is open to extending tuition freezes on college campuses to help cut down costs for students. House Democrats are already proposing to extend freezes currently in place for another year.
“We ought to look at [extending tuition freezes]. It’s certainly been a very, very positive step the last two years,” Dayton said. “I have to look at the budget situation and look at if it’s possible … but a combination of tuition freezes and student aid would make higher education affordable for more Minnesotans.”
While education has been one of Dayton’s key talking points on the campaign trail, it’s also provided one of the main lines of attack for Republicans, who say the governor hasn’t taken meaningful steps to address the state’s education gap for minority students because he’s beholden to Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teacher’s union. In particular, they point to a his recent decision to veto state funding for Teach For America (TFA), a program that puts young non-traditional teachers in struggling inner city classrooms and that is opposed by Education Minnesota.
But Dayton, who spent time in New York City classrooms as a teacher, said influence from the union has nothing to do with his policy decisions. “Unlike many Republican politicians, I have a high respect for teachers because I know what it entails to go into a classroom and deal with the kind of challenges they are facing today,” he said. “I make decisions that are best for Minnesota, not what’s best for Education Minnesota or any particular group.”
The next governor might be lucky enough to have a budget surplus to spend in 2015, but Dayton won’t spell out any specifics of his proposal until he sees the November economic forecast. Looking back at past mistakes, however, the governor said there are a few things he won’t try again.
During 2013 session, Dayton introduced a budget that proposed broad tax reforms as a way to make the whole system more equitable — part of a promise he made on the campaign trail. The centerpiece of the proposal lowered the overall sales tax rate by applying the tax to items that were previously exempt, including business-to-business services and things like clothing purchases over $100, haircuts and car repairs. But the proposal was met with a swift attack from Republicans and members of the business community, and Dayton quickly pulled the plan.
“My version of sales tax reform was to make it broadly comprehensive to have it include in all sales and then lower the rate by 20 percent. That fell with a thud because the business community was totally opposed,” Dayton said. “Many were in support of broadening the sales tax on just consumers and the like, but that’s a regressive tax… I’m not interested in doing that.”
Minnesota Sex Offender Program
Minnesota’s next governor will almost certainly have to figure out what to do with 700 people currently locked indefinitely in the state’s sex offender treatment program.
In February a federal judge will take up a class action lawsuit alleging the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is unconstitutional because it offers the promise of treatment but never actually releases anyone from its campuses in Moose Lake and St. Peter. Only one person has ever been released into the community in the program’s 19-year history, but he currently lives under intense supervision. U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank’s ruling on the case could potentially upend the program — experts are already recommending the unconditional release of some offenders, who they say are no longer a danger to the public.
The governor and legislators could head off judicial action on the program, however, if they come up with a solution. In 2013, state senators passed legislation to create a less-restrictive facility for certain offenders, while also changing the process to commit people to the program in the first place. But the reforms stalled in the state House this year, where the politically-charged issue was tabled by legislators facing re-election this fall.
“I’m open to the Senate proposal,” Dayton said. “I think we ought to look at the whole process, from criminal sentencing — it may well be that those sentences should be extended for perpetrators with multiple sex crimes — and then the process by which civil commitment follows really needs to be looked at for the inconsistencies across the state.”
“And we have 700 people locked up indefinitely with now with no intention of providing anybody with structured release or supervised release or change in their situation,” he continued. “That’s just not going to be tenable. We have got to figure out what to do with 700 people. They are not all suitable for any kind of release, but some are, and we have to some kind of a process for that. There should be a process that tries as much as possible to take us out of the political realm, with both the decision to confine as well as deciding if someone is suitable for release.”
It’s been six years since legislators voted to increase the state’s gas tax in order to fund $6 billion in improvements to roads and bridges across the state. Back then, Minnesotans were shaken by the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, which helped lawmakers override a veto from then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Next year, transportation advocates say another $6 billion is needed just to maintain the infrastructure the state already has, but they know it’s going to be political feat to convince legislators to back another increase in the gas tax.
For his part, Dayton says he’s open to finding new revenues to pay for transportation improvements, but he’s not sure Minnesotans are willing to foot the bill. “That will be something 201 legislators and I will have to wrestle with next year,” he said. “The gas tax is insufficient by itself. My opinion is if we do this, we need to do it at a scale that is successful. … It’s really a question of what the public is willing to support and the public is going to have to decide through their elected representatives if they are willing to support more money for roads. There’s no free lunch when it comes to transit and transportation, and it’s unlikely we will get any funds from the federal government.”
Dayton spent much of the early part of this year wrestling with parents, legislators and law enforcement over a suitable way to permit medical marijuana in the state. In the end, and after several reversals from the governor, policy makers landed on a strict law that doesn’t allow for anyone to obtain or smoke the plant form of marijuana. The law also restricts usage of pill or vapor forms to a small list of serious illnesses. The program is being developed now, and Dayton says he has no interest in expanding the law before things are up and running.
“[People who want to expand the medical marijuana law] are going to want to legalize marijuana, that’s their agenda,” Dayton said. “Personally, I think we should give [the current program] the chance to show how it’s working and where the gaps are before we jump into something else.”
Tensions between pro-mining interests on the Iron Range and environmentalists will come to a head in the next governor’s term, after a long awaited environmental review process on the PolyMet mining project is finally complete. PolyMet could be the first non-ferrous mining endeavor in the state, creating several hundred jobs on the economically struggling Iron Range, but environmentalists are concerned the process could damage the area’s pristine lakes for years to come. For now, Dayton said he won’t make any decisions until he sees the results of the environmental review.
“It has the potential to become an ugly situation because you have such strongly held views that are diametrically opposed to one another,” he said. “You have people who believe passionately that they are right and the other views are wrong. I take it very seriously, that’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed absolutely impartial and undecided until after the EIS is completed.”
Dayton has a few regrets when it comes to MNsure, the state-run health insurance exchange that has garnered its fair share of bad headlines in its first year. The rollout of the program was plagued with problems that made it difficult for consumers trying to enroll in health care coverage. Looking ahead, the governor is eyeing a shakeup on board that oversees the exchange — a board he originally appointed.
“I appointed the seven-member board, and I’m held directly responsible for everything that goes on, even though I don’t directly handle what goes on,” Dayton said. “I’m not trying to evade any of my responsibility for getting it started or for those appointments and the like. I think the governance of MNsure will definitely be on the docket for next year.”
Jobs and the economy
Whether or not he wins another term, Dayton’s biggest legacy as governor may very well be the major construction projects he has backed with state funds (see: the Vikings stadium and Destination Medical Center in Rochester). He plans to continue to look for opportunities for the state to entice companies with funds or tax breaks to stay or expand in Minnesota. “It’s curious, whenever we have a DFL governor, those incentives are criticized, and whenever we have Republican governor they are not,” he said.
In term two, Dayton said his effort to bring the University of Minnesota’s medical school back into national spotlight — which could come with a price tag for the state — would be an economic boon to the medical industry in Minnesota. “With what Mayo is doing right now, bringing that program back into national prominence, we will truly be a Mecca for medical technology companies and major advances in medical care.”