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Why Dayton’s veto threat may pose problems — for Dayton

Dayton isn’t the first governor to pout when he doesn’t get his way. Many of his predecessors were capable of snits when their brilliance was questioned. But this feels different. 

Gov. Mark Dayton wants what he wants — and if he doesn’t get $173 million for his pre-kindergarten program for the state’s four-year-old children, he’s going to veto an entire education bill.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Gov. Mark Dayton has long been fond of a particular saying: “The governor proposes and the Legislature disposes.’’ He’s also frequently mentioned that he placed a sign in his office that was once in the office of his mentor, Gov. Rudy Perpich: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

But apparently in these last few hours of the legislative session, Dayton has forgotten about this burdensome process and consensus stuff. He is, after all, “unbound.” He wants what he wants — and if he doesn’t get $173 million for his pre-kindergarten program for the state’s 4-year-old children, he’s going to veto an entire education bill. (The figure means the pre-K program would be run on a half-day basis for the school districts who choose to be involved.)

Dayton’s veto vow comes despite the fact that the Legislature has had little time to digest this major education initiative. And he’s making the vow despite the fact that it’s not just Republican legislators who are saying “no,” but many school administrators, who are cool to an idea that would not only be very costly but has raised other questions about its value. Even early-childhood advocates question whether a “one-size-fits-all” public school pre-K program is good policy.

The simple reality is that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and House Speaker Kurt Daudt came up with a compromise plan they both could endorse that would put an additional $400 million into the K-12 funding formula. It’s not as much as DFLers wanted, but it’s more than Republicans wanted to spend.

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The governor has said “no” — repeatedly — unless he gets his pre-K money.

Now, even Bakk is calling Dayton’s veto pledge “risky.’’ The obvious risk is to school districts, which are saying that even with the additional $400 million included in the current deal, they will have to cut programs and lay off staff. Without that $400 million infusion, there will be cuts deeply felt by every school district in the state.

That means there will be political fallout. If the veto happens, there could also be chaos. Administration officials say a veto could mean a shutdown of the Minnesota Department of Education, which would halt teacher licensing and, of course, mean no added funds to the formula going out to cash-strapped districts. 

Dayton believes that Republicans will take the heat for the mess. Republicans, of course, believe it will be Dayton and DFLers. But what matters to politicians in the hothouse environment of the Legislature — who takes the blame for what — often doesn’t matter much to people just want to live their lives, i.e. voters, especially when the issue is education. 

In a statement, education committee chair Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, sort of defended the governor, but he also made it clear that he believes the legislative process sort of worked. “While I promise to keep on fighting for greater early-education funding, K-12 schools across the state can look forward to another two years of growth and success, rather than facing cuts,” Wiger said.

Dayton isn’t the first governor to go into a public pout when he doesn’t get his way. His predecessor, Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who dealt with DFL majorities in both the House and Senate, tried to get everything he wanted using an unallotment process that the state’s Supreme Court ultimately decided was unconstitutional. And Jesse Ventura, Arne Carlson and Perpich were all capable of snits and bullying when their brilliance was questioned.  

But this feels different. For starters, during his first term, Dayton often seemed like the adult in the room. On this issue, he sounds more like the cantankerous old pol who believes he’s right, and that anybody who opposes him is not just wrong, but morally suspect: opposed to sunshine, puppies and Minnesota children.

“I’m going to veto $400 million because it’s wrong for the people of Minnesota, the parents of Minnesota and the school children of Minnesota,” he said at one point in this mini drama. Of his opponents on the matter, he railed: “I don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror.”

Apparently, somebody must have misplaced his “None of us is as smart as all of us” sign during Capitol renovation. 

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It wasn’t that long ago that Dayton successfully pushed for legislation that has brought all-day kindergarten to Minnesota. This was a big change in how we school our kids.

Now, even as the state copes with that change, he’s back again, demanding an even more dramatic change. Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, is both amazed and miffed by the governor’s demand.

“Last year, he got all-day kindergarten,” Davids said. “Now he wants pre-K for 4-year-olds. Then, he’ll come back for 3-year-olds, 2-year-olds. Pretty soon he’s just going to want to back the school bus up to the maternity wards.”

If there was universal agreement that six hours a day of pre-K schooling would close the massive gap in achievement between white and minority students in Minnesota, perhaps the governor’s demand would be understandable. But there is not universal belief among early-childhood experts that it would.

The current pre-K system isn’t a system at all. But then 4-year-olds are not exactly ready to be systemized. Some are big toddlers, some are relatively mature, some still need help in the bathroom. A few are reading, but some are still sucking their thumbs. The marketplace, to use a term that Republicans love, offers as many types of systems as there are pre-K kids. 

Obviously, many of those choices are costly, but the state has a nationally-lauded pre-K scholarship program for children of low-income families. Legislators of both parties support the program, which advocates say will offer 45,000 children scholarships in the coming year. 

Dayton deserves credit for working with legislators to establish that flexible program, which gives parents a choice in which type — if any — pre-K school is right for their kid.

That was then. This time, he’s on his own.