With deficit looming, Dayton becomes governor

Gov.-elect Mark Dayton
Gov.-elect Mark Dayton arrives for his first press conference after being officially certified as the winner of the 2010 gubernatorial election on Dec. 8, 2010 in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

DFLer Mark Dayton will be sworn in as Minnesota's new governor at noon today, but he won't have much time to celebrate.

Dayton and the new Republican-controlled Legislature have only about five months to figure out how to erase a record state budget deficit of $6.2 billion.

It could be a tough job, since Dayton campaigned on a "tax the rich" theme, and most Republicans pledged no new taxes. Still, both sides say they will approach the 2011 session, which begins Tuesday, ready to find common ground for a budget fix.

The budget debate will begin in earnest on Feb. 15. That's when Dayton is required to unveil his proposal for a balanced 2012-2013 budget. Dayton said that as far as he can tell, there are no good options for cleaning up the fiscal mess he's inheriting.

"I think we're going to have to look at all of the options for both the revenue side and the expenditure cut side," he said. "I think we'll have to turn all the cards face up on the table."

But Dayton's push for new revenue -- through an income tax increase on top earners -- is strongly opposed by Republicans, who now control both the Minnesota House and Senate. They insist voters elected them to make sure state government lives within its means and doesn't raise taxes. Dayton recently reminded Republicans that he too was elected on his platform and principles.

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"I believe the collective wisdom of the electorate is they want part of what each of us offers, and they want us to work together to solve the state's budget crisis, to put them back to work, put government to work for all of them, and for all of us to work together to build a better Minnesota," he said.

The new GOP Speaker of the House, Kurt Zellers, of Maple Grove, said he thinks he can develop a good working relationship with Dayton, but when it comes to taxes, he's convinced that neither Minnesota families nor businesses have anything left to give. Zellers said state government simply has to set new spending priorities.

"In tough economic times you have to focus on your needs, and maybe you have to have your wants wait for a while ... what it is our overguiding principle is focusing on our needs, which is education, which is the developmentally disabled, which are our folks in nursing homes, those folks who really need the help and can't fend for themselves," Zellers said. "But after that, a lot of those extra wants are going to have to be put on hold because that's what families are doing."

The new Republican majority leader in the Minnesota Senate, Amy Koch, of Buffalo, shares the same no-new-taxes view of the budget. Koch said there are difficult decisions ahead to reduce spending, but she also sees an opportunity to redesign many programs and services to make them more cost effective.

"The way we've been doing business just can't happen anymore. We can't afford it. It's not sustainable," she said. "Now more than ever I think we have an opportunity to say OK, let's just clear the slate and figure out, for every dollar we're spending is that the best way to spend that money? Is that the most efficient way to spend that money?"

Republicans say they want to rein in most areas of state spending, but they also want to protect some priority areas, such as schools, nursing homes and programs that serve the disabled.

Democrats are skeptical about the GOP approach. DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, of Minneapolis, said he doesn't think Republicans can erase a $6.2 billion deficit through cuts alone, especially if they keep some spending areas off the table.

"To respect those priorities and to do it in an all cuts environment is I think going to be impossible," he said. "So, I'll be curious to see what they bring to the table. And once they go through that process and we get to May, then I think we'll have an opportunity to have a realistic discussion."

House and Senate leaders will gavel the start of the 2011 session Tuesday at noon. If a budget solution is reached on schedule, the session will adjourn on May 23.