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With an eye toward his legacy, Dayton digs in on the budget

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
In the midst of his fourth and final budget negotiations, Gov. Mark Dayton has found himself defending much of his legacy.

Mark Dayton has seen it all before.

In 2011, the Democrat was in the governor’s office and Republicans had majorities in both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature, just like this session. And, just like now, there was a major battle over the state’s two-year budget, on everything from health care to tax cuts. 

But for Dayton, there’s one big difference between 2011 and 2017. Six years ago, he was a new governor trying to craft his first-ever two-year state budget. This time, it’s his last. 

At 70 years old, Dayton is serving his final term as governor. In a little less than two years, he’ll be leaving public service altogether, ending a 40-year career that included a stint as state auditor, one term in the U.S. Senate and two rounds as the state’s chief executive. After winning his the race for governor 2010 — the first Democrat to do so in two decades — Dayton charted out a legacy on issues like early education, clean water and a controversial state-run health insurance exchange.

During that time, he’s also seen power at the Capitol shift between Republicans and Democrats. “Politics is a playground where you don’t get to pick your playmates,” Dayton said recently. “You just deal with whoever shows up.”

Now in the midst of his fourth and final budget negotiations, Dayton has found himself defending much of that legacy — and pushing to bolster key initiatives before he leaves, free from the electoral pressures during his first several budget debates. “It’s the last opportunity to stamp his legacy,” said Steve Sviggum, who spent six years at the Republican speaker of the House.

And like 2011, some Capitol watchers are wondering if Dayton’s last budget will lead to a showdown that won’t be resolved by the time session ends. 

‘No one’s going to be happy’

Looking back, Dayton’s first budget battle was one of the most contentious in recent state history. The state faced a $6 billion deficit when session convened in early 2011. To fill the gap in the budget, Dayton insisted on raising income taxes on the richest Minnesotans, a plan that a new Republican majority in the Legislature pushed back on all session. 

Republicans said the state books could be balanced through budget cuts, which Dayton argued would hurt the state’s most vulnerable citizens. The stalemate stretched past the session’s May deadline to adjourn — and into a government shutdown that lasted for 20 days, the longest in state history.

The final agreement was one both sides detested. It called for withholding $700 million in payments to K-12 schools and selling nearly $700 million in bonds backed by revenue from the state’s tobacco settlement for the rest. “No one’s going to be happy with this,” Dayton said at the time, “which is the essence of a real compromise.” 

The situation changed dramatically two years later, after a sweeping victory by Democrats in the 2012 elections gave the DFL total control of the Legislature. They faced a more than $600 million budget deficit, but even with one-party control at the Capitol, a budget deal was pushed until the final hours of the session. Democrats disagreed over a package of construction projects, known as the bonding bill, and how much to raise in taxes. 

In the end, lawmakers passed a small bonding bill and a tax bill that raised more than $2 billion in new revenue, partially through Dayton’s campaign promise to raise income taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans. That helped cover the state’s deficit and paid for new spending for property tax relief and education, including all-day kindergarten, a priority for Dayton. The Legislature also agreed to establish a state health insurance exchange, MNsure, as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. 

In 2015, Dayton returned to the Capitol after being re-elected, despite proposing a tax increase in the previous budget. But the legislative realities had shifted yet again. Republicans had claimed control of the House, creating a divided Legislature for the upcoming budget debate.

There was good news for everyone, however: The state was in the black, projecting a $2 billion budget surplus. But a surplus didn’t make negotiations easier. Republicans in the House wanted tax cuts, while Dayton and Senate Democrats wanted more spending on education and a gas-tax increase to pump hundreds of millions into state transportation projects each year for the next decade. They deadlocked until the final weekend of the session, when legislative leaders struck a deal — without Dayton.

The agreement did nothing on transportation or taxes and left most of the surplus unspent. Smaller deals were worked out to increase spending on education, and Republicans dropped a plan to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a state-run health care program for low-income residents. But Dayton vetoed three of the budget bills after lawmakers went home, including the education deal, which he said didn’t increase spending enough. After reaching a deal with legislative leaders to spend more on education, Dayton called lawmakers back for a one-day special session. 

‘Significant freedom’ in final budget

There’s still one week left in the 2017 legislative session, but Dayton’s already issuing vetoes.

In early May, Dayton and Republican leaders met in closed-door negotiations, trying to work out a single, $46 billion state budget plan. With a $1.65 billion surplus, Dayton wants to increase spending on schools across the state as well as on his signature voluntary pre-kindergarten proposal, which he and the Legislature had agreed in 2016 to spend surplus money on. Republicans want to cut more than $1 billion in taxes and to trim state government across the board. 

After five days of negotiations, however, Republicans felt talks were dragging along intentionally, that Dayton was trying to “slow walk” a deal. “The governor gains leverage if he pushes us to the end,” Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt said in announcing a plan with Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka to send Dayton their 10 budget bills without a compromise.

Dayton, in turn, promised Republicans he would “veto them all.” In veto letters, he has called the cuts to health and human services “reckless and foolish,” and said the nearly $200 million in cuts to state government programs “take our state in the wrong direction.”

But the disagreements go beyond the numbers. Republicans don’t put money into Dayton’s pre-kindergarten program. In fact, they shift funds currently going to his voluntary pre-kindergarten to school readiness programs instead. Their environment budget rolls back deadlines on a policy to put natural grass buffers between farmland and public waterways to protect them from agricultural runoff, another signature Dayton proposal. And the health and human services budget repeals MNsure, the state exchange Dayton and Democrats set up.

In a press conference, Dayton pushed back on Republican attempts to repeal his buffer law. “If they don’t like it then they don’t like it,” Dayton said. “It’s my job to represent the people of Minnesota, all the people of Minnesota.”

He also promised to veto other bills — a GOP proposal to pre-empt local governments from passing their own labor and wage laws, and a bill to change the governance of the Metropolitan Council — speaking in more absolute terms than he had all session.

“I think the last budget, when a governor is not running for election, probably gives the governor significant freedom to make decisions that he wants as opposed to a product that sells to the Legislature or the public,” Sviggum said.

DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, who has sat in on the budget negotiations, said she hasn’t seen a major change in Dayton’s negotiation style, despite the fact that it’s his last budget. In the past, he pushed for unpopular tax increases ahead of his own re-election, and he’s always been willing to agree to make compromises in order to get a deal.

“We saw that in 2011 when the situation was identical; he agreed to things he didn’t want to,” she said. “He respects the other branches of government’s power, and he respects that the House speaker and the majority leader of the Senate have positions they’ve earned through the voters as well.”

Dayton and Republicans plan to resume budget negotiations on Tuesday, and there’s still time for the two sides to agree to a budget by May 22, the constitutional deadline to adjourn.

Former Republican House Minority Leader Marty Seifert doesn’t see Dayton trying to push Republicans to the final hours of the session to get a better deal, or to try to make them look bad in the 2018 election. “I think he’d like to avoid that, ” he said. “Some people say the 2011 shutdown benefited the Democrats, but there were all sorts of dynamics at play. I don’t think Dayton wants that to be his legacy, having his last budget be a shutdown budget.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Chris David on 05/16/2017 - 12:20 pm.

    I think the Governor would be wise to offer Republicans some compromises. First off, agree that we are done with new light rail. We are also done spending money trying to expand the metro area; extra funds should go towards our regional centers because they’re the places that are much better suited to provide a competitive environment that can keep costs reasonable for our employers.

    We must also repeal collective bargaining for police, so that they can be non Union, at-will employees who will follow directives or be Fired for insubordination.

    • Submitted by Gene Nelson on 05/16/2017 - 03:20 pm.

      Compromise with repubs…why?

      We haven’t seen any compromises from repubs in the last appx 6 years so why should Dayton?
      Besides…there is very litlle for the people except hardships with the Repub bills…as always.
      Constantly amazed at the complete lack of facts by those on the right regarding light rail. Almost all the major cities have light rail and if you visit a city with a viable light rail system, they are used and affordable for all. maybe that’s why repubs oppose light rail and buses…it’s affordable for the people?
      Enrich your mind with facts and check out Chicagos very viable light rail system

      Not sure why you oppose unions. People need someone to negotiate for them as businesses won’t and especially repub politicians will not. We had our strongest growth and middle class when we had viable unions. Looking at repub policies and it seems you don’t want a strong middle class. Invest in our infrastructure and we will maybe have that again instead of the wealthy elite who send their money and our jobs outside the country.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 05/19/2017 - 05:54 am.

      In other words, you would like Dayton to become a Republican?

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/16/2017 - 01:52 pm.

    More spin…..not just on MinnPost

    If the situation was totally reversed with a DFL legislature and a GOP Governor the label would be “Governor NO!”

    Now Dayton is “digging in” and he is made out to be almost a “profile in courage.”

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/16/2017 - 02:35 pm.

    I don’t think it’s his legacy he’s worried about

    Dayton’s primary concern seems to be the well being of Minnesota and the people who live here. No intelligent or responsible governor would have any choice but dig in against the magical thinking and irrational agendas Republicans bring to the table. Dayton knows, as any knowledgeable and intelligent person knows, that the Republican budget will create fiscal crises and deficits. Dayton also knows that Republicans are particularly fond of attacking the poorest and most defenseless among us and to his credit, although he is neither poor nor defenseless, he’s defending his constituents.

    • Submitted by Gene Nelson on 05/16/2017 - 03:22 pm.


      Wanted to hit the like button, but there wasn’t one. Well said
      I see nothing from today’s repubs that will help the people…just their wealthy elitist friends.

  4. Submitted by Monte Gruhlke on 05/16/2017 - 02:58 pm.

    Dayton fights for Minnesotans, Daudt fights for a cash grab

    Dayton’s stewardship of the state has been exemplary. His critics may not agree with everything he’s done, but after Pawlenty left MN in the hole with a six billion deficit (thanks to traditional GOP style cash-grabbing), Dayton has only led MN up and out of the red to a sound footing, a funded state, funded schools and a surplus situation that most other states in the union envy. Now is NOT the time to gouge the accomplishments and cut departments/agencies.

    Daudt and his minions want to reverse the direction MN is heading in and begin gutting the programs and policies that has protected MN that keep it strong. With both Daudt and Congressional GOPers savaging health care and throwing people to the curb… Dayton has shown an unparalleled level of empathy and concern to protect Minnesotans and the environment they live in. In fact, people say ‘it’s about jobs,’ Minnesota has prospered under Dayton, gaining 5x as many jobs as Wisconsin – state well known for its Republican-dominated government currently suffering through more and more austerity. Don’t even start about Kansas… that Republican experiment has failed on so many levels, and those people are truly suffering.

    Dayton has proven that state government CAN be a good servant of the people. Republicans merely use government to strip away anything good that government does and funnel the money sideways to tax cuts that benefit a few, but that most of us regular folks won’t see.

    Do we want to live under Republican rule with a ghostly whisper of scraps while they rake in the bucks — or do we want Democrats who want their communities and natural resources to have a voice?

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 05/17/2017 - 08:12 am.

      Pawlenty Kept Spending Way Down

      People seem to easily forget that Pawlenty had a DFL legislature to work with. That legislature wanted to increase permanent spending well over 10% every year. The deficits would have been much worse if Pawlenty did not fight for less spending increases, which still averaged more than the cost of inflation.
      Also, if our state had the kind of spending increases the DFL wanted back then, our government would be lucky to have any surplus right now.
      Funny thing is that every step of the way for Dayton has been more and more money to spend. That is not the state’s money, it is our money. Why if it okay to continue to take more and more money from people?

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2017 - 10:11 am.


        “Why if it okay to continue to take more and more money from people?”

        Taxes pay for services people need, and services aren’t free. As populations and economic conditions change so do the needs for public services i.e. transportation, education, health care, infrastructure, etc.

        And by the way, American’s have lower tax burden now then they’ve had in 60 years, so government isn’t actually taking “more and more”, which is why we have huge deficits and debt on the federal level, and inadequate services on the State level.

        Democrat budgets would NOT have created deficits because unlike Republicans, when democrats spend more, they collect additional revenue to cover those expenses. The deficits are caused by Republican refusal to raise enough revenue to pay for expenses, it’s just math.

  5. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 05/16/2017 - 03:29 pm.

    Pawlenty’s advice

    Ringing in my ears are the thousand times I heard Republicans say of DFL’ers during the Pawlenty era variations on “It’s irresponsible to send a bill/budget to the governor that you know he will not sign.” Time now for them to follow their own advice from back then.

  6. Submitted by Noel Martinson on 05/16/2017 - 03:29 pm.

    Where are the votes from Democratic legislators?

    It seems telling that rather than try to recruit a single vote from any Democrat in the Senate, the Repubs had to wait until everyone in their party was seated before “passing” legislation. No efforts to find a bipartisan solution, just complain about the Gov. Is working across the aisle on budgets a thing of the past?


  7. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/16/2017 - 06:16 pm.

    I’m Curious to Know WHO it is

    that our State’s Republican legislators believe they’re serving,…

    because it absolutely is NOT their average constituents.

    I suppose the old aphorism “follow the money” applies.

    Now if we could just get the Democrats to campaign on how much the Republicans have taken away,…

    or TRIED to take away from their rural Constituents,…

    coupled with what the Democrats have done,…

    or TRIED to do to help them,…

    perhaps we could change that equation.

    Clearly my rural friends and neighbors have no clue which side their bread is buttered on,…

    as the old saying goes,…

    even though though their local “small cities” leaders keep trying to point out,…

    that the Republicans are massively shortchanging the aid those rural folk need,…

    in order to give massive tax cuts to the fat cats in Wayzata, North Oaks,…

    and all the other places in the metro where multi-million dollar mansions are found.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2017 - 09:04 am.


      The problem with Republicans, and the ironic damage Republican voters inflict on themselves, it the fact that Republicans have no coherent concept of “service”. Republicans are all about power, and using power to inflict their world views on constituents rather than “serve” constituents. It’s a patriarchy completely run amok wherein Republicans once elected, see themselves in a position where they can impose their moralities, budget priorities, and various types of “discipline” upon their constituents whether they their constituents like it or not.

      The other problem is Republican dishonesty. In their pursuit of power, they will frequently obscure they’re real agendas. So they promise more roads and bridges and other services for rural MN, but they unfurl budgets that can’t possibly deliver what they’ve promised.

  8. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 05/16/2017 - 06:21 pm.

    Republican policies have failed

    …in Kansas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, they are now trying to close a 900 million dollar budget gap. This is what happens when you elect true believers who govern by ideology instead of rational people who look at facts and leave the magical thinking at the door when they enter the statehouse. Without Mark Dayton to send the legislature back to work on a reality-based budget, we’d be in the same boat.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/17/2017 - 08:09 am.

    By the way… Sviggum?

    How does Sviggum end up being a: “go-to” guy for evaluating Mark Dayton’s budget motivations? It’s impossible to describe Sviggum without disparaging his integrity, so I won’t do that, beyond observing that it’s no wonder the guy would conclude that Dayton’s primary focus is on his “lagacy” rather than good governing. Asking Sviggum to “explain” Dayton is like asking a penguin to discuss quantum physics. It’s never going to occur to Sviggum that Dayton actually thinks his budget and priorities are better for Minnesota than magical thinking and accounting gimmicks. Whatever.

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