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Does Gov. Mark Dayton’s often-tense relationship with legislators help or hurt him?

As his recently failed pitch for a special session showed, Dayton often seems to be on a different page from state lawmakers. Some say that hurts him. Others say it means he’s doing his job. 

Gov. Mark Dayton speaking at the meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Minneapolis last Friday.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

It ended before it even started.

During a routine round of questions with the press in August, Gov. Mark Dayton announced that his latest idea — to call a special legislative session focused on providing relief to resort owners suffering from low walleye populations in Lake Mille Lacs — probably wasn’t going to pan out. After spending most of the month in back-and-forth negotiations, the Democratic governor said there just wasn’t enough support among rank-and-file lawmakers for the idea.

It wasn’t the first time the second-term governor’s agenda met with defeat at the hands of legislators. The regular 2015 session ended in May with a last-minute deal struck by the Republican-controlled House and the DFL-led Senate, but no sign-off from the governor. And the governor’s top priority of the session — universal preschool education — was conspicuously left out of the agreement.

In response, Dayton vetoed several budget bills and set a special session for June. But while lawmakers eventually added more money for education in the new budget, they refused to use it for Dayton’s preschool plan. They argued that the governor didn’t spend the time lobbying legislators to support the measure. 

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Tension between the legislative and executive branch is nothing new, but political observers say Dayton’s relationship with legislators is among the more distant and adversarial of recent governors. Dayton prefers the bully pulpit — holding press conferences to announce major policy initiatives and put the heat on legislators — to the behind-the-scenes lobbying and cajolling for votes, they say.

“I can’t think of another instance where a governor said they were going to call a special session and then didn’t get it,” said former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. “The management of the Legislature is an incredibly important task [for a governor], one that doesn’t get talked about as much.” 

Though Dayton’s out-front style of governing is popular with the public — he was comfortably re-elected to a second term last fall — tensions with lawmakers in both parties has made it hard to push forward the big policy changes that governors like to tout, a dynamic that will be of paramount importance next session, when he tries again to pass his preschool proposal.

More Perpich than Pawlenty

Many of Minnesota’s recent governors were creatures of the state Capitol: Republicans Tim Pawlenty, Arne Carlson and Al Quie all served in the Legislature before they held executive office. Political observers say that made it easier for them to understand and work within the legislative process, which requires four caucus leaders to manage and wrangle dozens of votes at a time.

Though he’s been immersed in Minnesota politics for decades — besides governor, he served as state auditor and U.S. senator — Dayton long had few ties to the Legislature. When he launched his bid for governor in 2010, it quickly became clear an outsider wouldn’t get the backing of Democrats in the traditional endorsement process. Dayton announced he would run in a primary regardless. As heir to his family’s department store fortune, he had plenty of money on his own to launch a campaign.

That didn’t please DFL activists, who banned him from the floor of their spring convention that year and instead endorsed then-House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. But seven months and almost a million votes later, those same activists were gathered around him as the next governor of Minnesota. 

His relationship with the Legislature didn’t change much after the election. His first two terms were marked by frequent clashes with a Republican-controlled House and Senate as they tried to balance a multi-billion dollar budget deficit. Even after he got a DFL-controlled Legislature in 2012, Dayton had several high-profile rifts with lawmakers in his own party. At one point, he called a press conference to accuse Senate Democrats of holding a time-sensitive package of tax cuts hostage so that they could get sign-off on a new office building for legislators.

“The most effective administrations are those who have an aggressive lobbying effort,” said Roger Moe, a lobbyist who was a longtime DFL Senate Majority Leader. “By and large, there’s always kind of a healthy tension between governors and the Legislature. That’s not at all bad, however, sometimes you get a governor that came out of the Legislature, and I tend to think they have a better understanding of the difficulty that the legislative leaders have.”

Dayton points to successes he’s had with the Legislature, including legalizing gay marriage during the 2013 session. He also pushed for a successful public subsidy package for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. But he also acknowledges his lack of experience in the Legislature initially put him at a disadvantage. “I didn’t come from the Legislature,” he said. “I didn’t have the years of relationship building that, for example, Gov. Pawlenty did.”

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When it comes to his relationship with legislators, Dayton is sometimes compared to former pro-wrestler and Independence Gov. Jesse Ventura, who had an openly adversarial relationship with the Legislative branch. Ventura went so far as to regularly advocate for things like term limits and a unicameral Legislature.

But Dayton’s style is most often compared to former DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich, an Iron Ranger with an independent streak who was also one of Dayton’s mentors (Dayton served in Perpich’s administration as commissioner of employment and economic development). During the 1989 legislative session, Perpich vetoed a major DFL tax bill because of disagreements over tax relief. Perpich was dismissive of the legislative process at the time, calling it a “circus” and criticizing the style of the two Democrats in control of the House and Senate.

That episode was regularly referenced in the Capitol halls this year, after Dayton held a press and said DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk “stabbed me in the back” when his caucus voted to nix pay raises the governor granted his commissioners.

The push for preschool

There were a number of things Dayton wanted at the start of the 2015 session, and he laid them out clearly to lawmakers: a robust transportation funding package; a large package of construction projects; a tax credit for families in child care; and lots of new money in education.

At the top of the list, however, was an ambitious proposal to institute universal preschool in Minnesota.

Yet the initiative landed with a thud. It got two hearings in the Legislature, but some education groups opposed it, which caused hesitance among legislators in both parties. 

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said Republicans don’t have much appetite to revisit the issue next session, and noted that Dayton’s staff never even requested a meeting with her during session to talk about his top priority. “A meeting just never happened, there was no contact with me,” Loon said. “There are very different styles and there are a myriad of personalities involved, but this governor seems to be a little reticent to actively engage with members of the Legislature.”

“Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a governor trying to be independent. Governors want to lead and they want to set the agenda,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “But it’s one thing if you’re trying to make a political statement, it’s another if you want to get something done. You have to figure out how to do that. I get the impression that’s not high on the governor’s priority list.”

Some see value in Dayton’s approach, though. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said Dayton provided early and strong leadership on the issue of pre-K, bringing it to the attention of the masses. That’s exactly the right role for the governor, she said. “I do believe it will eventually be something that happens,” she said. “That’s one example where it’s a big idea, and it’s the right thing, and it sometimes takes time.” 

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Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, has started traveling the state to promote the universal preschool proposal and answer questions the public has about the policy. But she introduced a preschool education bill back in 2014, before the governor’s push, and she’s traveling independently from the administration. Still, Murphy describes the governor as an “important partner” in the push for universal preschool.

“The issue is important to me and it’s important to our future, but for some people it came up so suddenly. The governor pushed it so it got a lot of attention,” Murphy said. “There are a lot of questions, and the best way to advance the issue is to talk to Minnesotans, get people on the ground.”

Governor sets the debate

For his part, Dayton says the tensions between himself and the Legislature are at least partially by design.

“The role of the Legislature is designed to be — by the founders of our country — independent and often oppositional to the president and the governor,” Dayton said. “Ultimately that serves the best interest of our state. I might not think so in the moment, but overall and over time it establishes a balance. People are elected in their own right. There are 201 individually elected people who have earned the right to be in the process with the governor.”

That independent style as governor hasn’t hurt him with the public. Dayton remains popular in opinion polls and his sometimes-gruff candor makes him appear outside of the political machine, observers say. He comes off as genuine and authentic in public appearances. 

It’s also on the governor to set the terms of the debate each year. Governors release their budget proposal weeks before legislators, and they travel the state talking about their priorities. And at any moment, they can call a press conference and force legislators to respond. 

Longtime state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said that’s Dayton’s strength, pointing to his efforts this session to put 50-foot buffers along all of the state’s waterways to protect them from agricultural runoff.

The issue wasn’t on anyone’s radar until Dayton suddenly declared it one of his top priorities early in the 2015 session. He ran into immediate pushback from agriculture groups and the Republican legislators who control of the House. But in the end, a version of his proposal passed, even if was far less expansive than the original package, requiring all public ditches to have a 16.5-foot buffer from the water.

“He didn’t get everything he wanted out of it, but given where legislators were ahead of time, not to mention it was the first session where he was pushing it and a session where a lot of people thought it was dead from the start, he got a significant chunk of what he wanted,” said Marty, a supporter of the proposal. “That’s pretty incredible.” 

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When it comes to the 2016 session, Dayton said he will push his priorities by traveling the state and doing many of the things he did last session: regular breakfast meetings with legislative leaders, meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers and building allies for his priorities. But part of the tension, he says, is built into politics — and will always be there.

“Virtually every member of the Legislature is certain that he or she could do a better job as governor,” Dayton said.

“Someone once said the dissonance and the controversy in the legislative process is the noise of democracy,” he added. “It’s where people from very different backgrounds and ideologies and life experiences come to interact and express their views.”