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Governor as goalie: Dayton blocks GOP initiatives but keeps a low session profile

Briana Bierschbach//April 4, 2012

Governor as goalie: Dayton blocks GOP initiatives but keeps a low session profile

Briana Bierschbach//April 4, 2012

Gov. Mark Dayton leaves the governor's reception room followed by Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson after talking to reporters about the state's budget Dec. 1, 2011, in St. Paul. (AP photo: Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe)

This year has been a quiet one for first-term Gov. Mark Dayton.

The former U.S. senator entered his job as the state’s chief executive last year facing a $5 billion budget deficit and a wide philosophical divide between his administration and all-new GOP legislative majorities in both chambers. The two parties fought over a solution to the deficit all the way into a 20-day government shutdown. Now, nearly halfway through his second year and nearing the end of Session 2012, Dayton has mostly kept out of the headlines.

The spotlight has been directed instead at scandals and internal battles within the Republican caucuses, most notably the resignation of former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch and a looming gender discrimination lawsuit from fired former staffer Michael Brodkorb over the episode. And there have been no fiscal fires to put out: The state recorded its second consecutive budget surplus in February, making this the first session in several years that has not forced lawmakers and the governor to wrestle a deficit.

“Dayton’s main role has been a goal-keeper, blocking Republican legislation that he finds objectionable,” said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. The governor has opposed the GOP caucuses on some of their key bills this year, including a package of tort law changes as well as education reform proposals.

Dayton has some priorities of his own this session — namely a Vikings stadium and a bonding package — but Capitol watchers don’t believe he is willing to give up much to get them passed in 2012. By holding out this year, the popular governor can throw his high approval ratings toward campaigning against Republicans in hopes of gaining DFL majorities in 2013, sources say.

“Dayton clearly thinks that the next Legislature is going to be friendlier,” Jacobs said. “He’s willing to compromise, but he’s not willing to settle.”

Dayton priorities include bonding and stadium

Dayton Chief of Staff Tina Smith said the governor has been clear about his 2012 priorities since before the start of the session: He’s seeking a $775 million bonding bill, a new home for the Minnesota Vikings and a handful of other initiatives, such as a job-creation tax credit.

So far, GOP legislators have introduced, revamped and reintroduced a Vikings proposal, but the bills have had a hard time moving through committee ahead of adjournment. On bonding, the House and Senate are working toward floor votes on their respective bills, but major obstacles to passage loom in both chambers.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, and that has been the situation that he’s been in,” Smith said of the governor. “Republicans have made other choices this legislative session, and we will see how that goes for them.”

In the view of Republicans, Dayton has been lukewarm or downright hostile toward priority GOP bills that have landed on his desk. “His most important issues of the session are the Vikings stadium and bonding,” Senate GOP spokesman Steve Sviggum said. “We have yet to do either, but there are other issues out there that we are concerned about, like the [K-12] shift and education reform. There are things that we are interested in doing that the governor could come to the table for, but he hasn’t shown the leadership to do it yet.”

Dayton held his first bill-signing ceremony of the session on Monday, putting his signature on the second installment of Republicans’ permitting reform bills. At the news conference, Dayton says he can see more agreement to be had on a game and fish omnibus bill and, hopefully, on bonding. GOP Senate Assistant Majority Leader Bill Ingebrigtsen agreed: “At the end of the day, I think we feel relatively sure that there will be some kind of bonding proposal.”

But despite the common practice of passing a major bonding bill during even-numbered years, many Capitol observers say Dayton could just opt out.

“My guess is that he is going to hold out,” said GOP operative Gregg Peppin. “If he’s playing the politics, he has no reason to come to the table on bonding. He could just say, ‘This is my number, this is the number I want, and if you don’t pass it, I’m going to say you are the do-nothing Legislature.’”

Former DFL House Speaker Bob Vanasek says Republicans shouldn’t expect a lot of horse trading by the administration to procure a bonding bill.

“I think there’s a limit as to what he is willing to give up in order to get a bonding bill,” Vanasek said. “That’s an area where I think Republicans need to be careful. I think he’s honestly willing to go without it if he has to. The legislators, more than anyone, need those projects on the campaign trail.”

Dreaming of DFL majorities

According to some Republican analysts, Dayton doesn’t need to secure passage of anything at all. In fact, the less he signs, the worse off Republicans will be when it comes time to campaign.

“He has taken on the role of campaigner-in-chief. He wants the Legislature to fail in any way, shape or form,” Peppin said. “This guy is far from being the compromiser and the guy who has [been] alleged to capitulate and give in. He has been extremely partisan.”

Most observers agree that Dayton will be a critical factor in the upcoming election. All 201 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs, while Dayton doesn’t face re-election until 2014. He will have the time to campaign and use his deep fundraising ties on behalf of other Minnesota Democrats and against GOP-led ballot initiatives.

He also has popularity to throw around. A February KSTP/Survey USA poll showed that just 17 percent of those polled approve of the work of the Legislature. That’s even lower than a late January Public Policy Polling survey, which put the GOP-led Legislature’s approval rating at 23 percent. In both polls, Dayton’s approval rating sat at 50 percent or higher.

“He is full of energy to go out and do whatever is helpful, especially on the ballot initiatives,” Smith said. “He’s a good campaigner, and he’s also extremely popular right now. That’s going to be important.”

Jacobs believes that Dayton is also positioning himself for a strong message. “If the Republicans don’t give him what he wants, he’s going to use that as campaign fodder,” Jacobs said. “Dayton is not a very subtle campaigner. You know what he’s going to do a month before he does it. He’s going to run against them for blocking job growth, and he’s going to use the stadium and the bonding bill. Unless Republicans can get past that, he’s going to pound them with that.”

Some DFLers privately express frustration over Dayton’s comparative absence from the legislative session. While he has managed to block GOP proposals, Dayton hasn’t used his bully pulpit to consistently criticize the GOP majorities, as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty used to do in dealing with DFL majorities.

“I do think he is below the bar in terms of using the bully pulpit,” Jacobs said. “Pawlenty just relished hitting the road and the radio talk show circuit. Dayton is just not as comfortable doing that.”

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