Dayton unchained: Elections done, governor fights for legacy

Gov. Mark Dayton delivered his annual address.
Governor Mark Dayton delivered his 2015 State of the State address at the Minnesota State Capitol, in St. Paul on Thursday night
Glen Stubbe | StarTribune via AP

Freed from the political pressures of a next election, Gov. Mark Dayton says he's ready to battle it out on issues he views as crucial to Minnesota's future.

Last week, he walked into a room filled with farmers in Worthington, Minn., to argue for his environmental plan enforcing 50-foot buffer strips between crops and water. He met fierce resistance from growers who worried the idle land would cost them money.

Dayton didn't back down and jabbed at Joe Smentek, the Minnesota Soybean Council's environmental affairs director. "This is not a new subject," Dayton said. "This has been going on. It was going on when I worked for (then-governor) Rudy Perpich 30 years ago. The water is getting worse."

Dayton made it clear in an interview that Minnesotans should expect more of that same pugnacious style in his remaining three-plus years in power. He talked about some of his priorities Thursday evening in his State of the State speech.

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"I'm impatient," he said earlier in the week. "I can sit back and be safe with the economy doing well, with 3.7 percent unemployment, and just coast to the end. Or I can go out there and do things that improve the state that may not be popular right now."

The buffer plan isn't the only controversial initiative Dayton is pushing this session.

His $10 billion transportation plan includes a gas tax hike to pay for road and bridge improvements and a sales tax hike in the Twin Cities metro to fund transit projects.

Even his plan for universal state-funded preschool for four-year-olds is getting pushback because some say the money should be directed only at lower income kids.

Dayton says he won't run for re-election or for any other office. His legacy plans, however, risk running into a legislative buzz saw as lawmakers worry about their re-elections.

Every seat in the Minnesota House and Senate is on the ballot in 2016, so legislators from both parties are watching to see how the public reacts to Dayton's proposals. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, sees the positives.

"The governor is taking on his role of starting some serious conversations in Minnesota," Thissen said.

State House Republicans point out that the public has some problems with Dayton's plans.

House speaker Kurt Daudt
Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 during the state House session at the Capitol.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, almost always mentions Dayton's gas tax hike when talking with reporters. Recent polls say a slim majority of Minnesotans don't like the gas tax increase, as they also indicate Dayton is popular.

Daudt says House Republicans are going to push ideas that are politically popular and not address more controversial issues that might come back in the long term.

But Republicans will also be put to the political test in the coming weeks. They want to spend less than Dayton over the next two years on health care, economic development and schools, in part to pay for a big tax cut that is popular with Republican voters.

Democrats have already begun accusing them of shortchanging key programs when the state has a budget surplus.

"If we prioritize the problems that Minnesotans want us to work on — and work on solving those problems that Minnesotans think are appropriate — then we'll be more successful here," Daudt said. "If we start with solutions that are sometimes partisan and polarized then it will be really difficult to have a smooth session and to really have a smooth conclusion to the session."

Thissen acknowledged some of Dayton's initiatives are controversial even among the governor's fellow Democrats. But he said Dayton is pointing the state in the right direction.

"We can disagree with the governor as individual legislators on different pieces of it," Thissen said. "But the fact remains that we agree with the values he's presenting."

MPR News reporter Mark Steil contributed to this story.