The scene was a new one for the governor, at least since the state entered a historic government shutdown two weeks ago. While Dayton made an additional offer to the GOP majorities and appeared at two St. Paul news conferences in the week after the July 1 shutdown, few have seen the state’s chief executive outside of the confines of the now-locked down state Capitol. “This wasn’t my idea,” he said jokingly of the news conference location. “I’ll be traveling throughout Minnesota to talk with people about why we’re going through [the shutdown].”
In the view of most politicos around the Capitol, it was about time.
The DFL governor should have been out on the road immediately after the government shutdown to take full advantage of the bully pulpit that comes along with the power of the governorship, many observers say. “In 2005 [former Gov. Tim] Pawlenty had the radio show, and he had the ability and willingness to campaign around the state,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “It put the hurt on Democrats who were willing to hold out against him; from John Hottinger to Margaret Anderson Kelliher, they felt there was a cost to defying the governor.
“It’s not a matter of coming out tomorrow and giving a press conference or a speech. He has to barnstorm the state to put the political hurt on the Republicans holding out against him.”
And while Dayton is making the trip now, the delayed tour is just one example of what seems to be a cracking hold over the upper hand in budget negotiations, sources say, citing the governor’s backtracking on his original shutdown petition to the courts and his 11th-hour willingness to give up entirely on permanent tax increases of any sort. (On June 30, Dayton offered to solve the entire $1.4 billion budget gap by adding that sum to $1.9 billion in K-12 aid shifts already enacted in the last biennium.)
“Today Republicans seem to feel impunity and are OK to wait on the sidelines for a better deal because there is no cost to defying him,” Jacobs added. “They are sitting pretty, in fact. Why would a Republican compromise? The governor is making concession after concession, and it pays to wait him out.”
Immediately after the May 23 conclusion of the session, most Capitol watchers — and even a few GOP legislators — said Dayton had positioned himself very well for pre-shutdown negotiations with Republicans.
“There’s no doubt that the first four months of his administration were impressive,” Jacobs continued. “From his flexibility and his confidence, as well as compromising on some key issues and taking on Democratic stakeholders, to the way he positioned the budget negotiations up through the end of the session.”
But since the eve of the shutdown, the governor seems to have “abdicated” his bully pulpit, Jacobs said, and has been making “massive concessions bordering on capitulation.”
“He is like a kid in a playground, and if the game is not going his way, he takes his ball and leaves,” he said. “I wouldn’t say he has given away the farm yet, but I would say that seems to be in the cards. We’ve seen in the negotiations he gave away hundreds of millions of dollars, and he has all but walked away from his tax-the-rich promise.”
The first and most universally disliked move from the governor was his move to offer up a proposal to extend the school shift to 50:50, a level never touched before even in other deficit years. The move was immediately met with distaste: DFL legislative leaders reportedly walked out of negotiations when that option was put on the table. The GOP blogosphere pointed to Dayton as the architect of the shift proposal (in fact, a more modest shift — $350 million — was first placed on the table by Republicans). Dayton later said in a news conference that Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and other lawmakers gave him a “strong” reaction and said the move was “too extreme.”
Dayton also opened the door to other nontax revenues offered by Republicans, including a proposal put on the table by GOP leaders that would use future proceeds from tobacco settlement money to help pay off the deficit. “In that one offer, there was no revenue, no taxes whatsoever, and paying half of the school money late,” DFL Rep. Mindy Greiling recently told Capitol Report. “I was shocked at that offer and not a bit happy about it, either.”
The disappointment has been amplified by the governor’s backpedaling on his original petition to the courts on what should continue to receive funding during the shutdown. Many observers — especially Republicans — believed that Dayton was arguing for a hard shutdown in an effort to ramp up political pressures and expedite a deal with the Legislature. But before his petition even appeared before Ramsey County Judge Kathleen Gearin, Dayton took out one of his own key pressure points by adding payments to health care providers to the list of essential services. (The original petition requested that the services continue but that no payments be made until the shutdown concluded.)
In her ruling, Gearin continued funding for two other key pressure points: local government aid and K-12 school payments, both of which will go out on time this month despite the administration’s wishes to the contrary. In addition, the Dayton administration accepted a number of the arguments advocates made in contesting the shutdown ruling, including funding for special education, child care services, programs for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and services for the homeless.
There are varying accounts of the governor’s actions. GOP tweets have pulled out old campaign arguments against Dayton, labeling him again as “erratic” and pointing to his one term in the U.S. Senate, where he shuttered his Washington, D.C., office over fear of terrorist threats.
But as most DFLers see it, the governor is simply more affected by the shutdown than Republicans. “The governor has a deep feeling of responsibility, and the public will identify him as the top guy,” DFL lobbyist Ted Grindal said.
“I know exactly how [Dayton] is operating,” one retired DFL analyst told Politics in Minnesota’s Weekly Report last week. “He’s very stubborn, but he really is this old, unreconstructed liberal guy. He has spent most of his life in that group of rich kids that included his future wife [Rockefeller heir Alida Messinger], talking about their social responsibilities. He’s in agony about the public consequences. He’s not that good at this part of playing against the other side.”
Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson believes the governor hasn’t gotten enough support from either the DFL legislative caucuses or the state party in pushing his message and agenda across the state. “A couple of weeks ago,” Carlson said, “I said you should send a search party out to find [the state DFL Party.] You can’t find them. And he’s not getting a lot of help from Democratic legislators. Where are they? Once a governor gets isolated, he enters into very difficult areas; the challenges get greater. You’ve got to have your allies with you. He is not fighting this fight because he personally wins. Where are his friends?”
Many point to Pawlenty’s masterful handling of the bully pulpit over his eight years as governor, something Dayton hasn’t used to its full potential since the session ended. “The governor has a lot of power, Tim Pawlenty showed us that,” former GOP Sen. Steve Dille said. “If [Dayton] uses the full power of the governorship, he can get a lot of what he wants. So far it doesn’t look like [Dayton] is quite as strong as Pawlenty was.”
Out of options
The governor spoke less about his desired tax increases at the Monday news conference and more about just finding a solution — any solution — to get a deal done. He mentioned sales taxes and sin taxes to help solve the deficit — two sources he was opposed to tapping on the campaign trail. And despite objections, Dayton said it was “conceivable” that he would accept a 50:50 school shift as part of a global budget deal.
One reporter asked the governor if he was negotiating against himself at this point. “That’s a good question,” he responded. “I’ve suggested everything I can think of to get this settled.”
Unions are still squarely behind the governor, MAPE head Jim Monroe said, adding that they “have faith that the governor will strike the right balance between cuts and increased revenue.”
Some DFL legislators say the governor has no other choice.
“He has never put his feet in concrete; he has indicated from day one that he is looking for a solution,” DFL St. Paul Rep. Alice Hausman said. “The shutdown is not something [any other state] is doing to this level. It can’t go on and Dayton knows that. What choices does he have?”
Winona DFL Rep. Gene Pelowski agrees. He said he met with the governor for more than an hour last week, and advised him to hit the road and prepare Minnesotans for what an all-cuts budget could look like. “I don’t know how many revenue-raisers we are going to offer that they are going to reject,” he said. “At some point you have to do what is best for Minnesota given the reality of the situation. The Legislature is not going to raise revenue, so my suggestion to the governor is you do the best you can with this all-cuts budget.”
Pelowski said the real pain is going to come if and when an all-cuts budget is passed, and Minnesotans will then have to decide in the 2012 election whether that’s want they intended when they elected Republicans to the majorities in massive numbers last fall.
“This governor legitimately wants a balanced budget,” he said, “and he has before him something that has never existed in the history of Minnesota in the partisanship in the Republican House and Senate, and they are using their power very well in terms of their base. Dayton wants something in this, and that’s dangerous. He has nothing to give them in trade; there is no policy offer significant enough to counter raising revenue. There is no horse-trading here. The governor is doing all he can.”