Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part interview Politics in Minnesota/Capitol Report conducted with Gov. Mark Dayton. The first half of the interview is available here.
Eight years have passed since Jeff Johnson cast a vote in the Minnesota Legislature. Since 2008, Johnson has served on the Hennepin County Commission, a body with a significant amount of power, but one that often operates outside the mainstream consciousness. Any attempt to either build up or tear down Johnson’s record will first take some digging to find out just what it contains.
The situation is radically different for Gov. Mark Dayton, whose first term in office has generated dozens of positions, utterances and outcomes that are likely to play on voter’s minds this November. Minnesotans with short attention spans will inevitably have their memories refreshed: Dayton’s tumultuous experience leading the state leaves Republicans and their well-heeled supporters plenty of material to work with, and right-leaning campaign operatives have already begun to seize on certain issues as campaign fodder.
But liberals, including Dayton, are also keen to talk about aspects of the incumbent’s record, and point to an increased minimum wage and a boost to state funding for education as major selling points for his re-election.
The DFL governor is decidedly less eager to speak at length about another element of the campaign which is inarguably in his favor: According to campaign finance reports published earlier this week, Dayton had $1.66 million in cash on hand, more than twice Johnson’s holdings of $866,000.
Capitol Report sat down with Dayton to discuss perceived strengths of his campaign for re-election.
Capitol Report: Minnesota is set to go from one of the lowest minimum wages in the country to one of the highest by 2016. Is that change too dramatic?
Dayton: I don’t think so, because previously the state minimum wage, $6.15 an hour, put a family of four, with one full-time worker, at less than half of the federal poverty level. That means they need all sorts of additional financial support, such as food stamps and the earned income tax credit, and other state and federal financial assistance, which the rest of taxpayers pay for. So we’re indirectly subsidizing wages that are not at a livable level. We want to incentivize workers. I want work to pay … and to pay off for people who get the skills and the training. Even with the ultimate increase to $9.50 an hour, that’s still 80 percent of the poverty level for a family of four. We’re not making anybody rich. We’re just giving them the chance to earn and achieve the American dream. It also puts about half a billion dollars into the pockets of about 200,000 Minnesotans who are going to spend that money, in most cases, quickly, and most often within their immediate area of residence. So it’s going to add that money back into the Minnesota economy and boost consumer demand.
CR: Would you see that as something that could be a driving force to get liberal voters to the polls?
Dayton: I think there’s general public support for raising the minimum wage. I don’t know how that breaks down. There are certainly people who will directly benefit from it … but there’s a lot of mainstream support for it as well.
CR: The state economy is doing well, especially when compared to many other states. How much do elected officials have to do with that success?
Dayton: I’m just very glad that we are being successful, and I’ve said the credit belongs to the people of Minnesota. To the business executives and the entrepreneurs who had ideas and had the faith that they could be successful expanding, of locating here in Minnesota, and have been proven correct. We have the most productive, highly skilled, reliable workforce anywhere in the world. That’s proven to be the right formula for Minnesota, and better than most other states in the nation, as it has been for the last 37 years that I’ve been directly involved with economic development in the state of Minnesota. Republican governors, DFL governors, Independent governors … we have differences, honest differences, about levels of taxation, and yet the overall approach has been generally the same. We’re not a low-tax state, but we’re a high-value state.
CR: Some argue the state shouldn’t be involved in deals with private companies, like it was with the Minnesota Vikings on the stadium, saying it means the state is “picking winners and losers.” What are your thoughts?
Dayton: Well, we want more winners. When you get a situation like the stadium, if the state hadn’t been a participant, the Vikings would be on their way to Los Angeles. We’d have an empty Metrodome — antiquated, just a big white elephant there. The stadium has triggered about $800 million of private sector investments in other projects in the area, so it’s been a strong catalyst for the revitalization of that area. Destination Medical Center in Rochester, Mayo would’ve gone elsewhere, and we would’ve lost that tremendous economic opportunity. I’ve seen time after time the examples of where the state … in partnership with businesses and financial institutions, makes the difference between jobs here in Minnesota and jobs going somewhere else.
CR: When you ran in 2010, you relied mostly on self-funding. How is it different now that you have to raise money?
Dayton: I don’t like fundraising, but I’m resigned to it as an absolute necessity. I don’t have the resources anymore to self-finance. I signed the financing agreement … so we’re working within those rules, and making the best of it, but I don’t enjoy fundraising.
CR: The state passed big increases in education funding in 2013, and added more money this past session. What’s your response to those who say money is not the problem with public school education?
Dayton: More money is not a guarantee of improvement, but less money is almost certainly a guarantee of more deterioration. We came off of a decade, when I took office, of — in real, after-inflation dollars — a reduction in state per-pupil aid. At the same time, the number of kids with special needs, and with different cultural, racial and language backgrounds increased the pressure on schools to effectively assimilate everybody and give them the chance to achieve the American dream. In higher education, in fiscal 2023 2012, the state support for higher education … was the lowest in real dollars since 1981. So people perceived we put more money in, but we are just reversing the years of decline, and then the borrowing from school districts, the $2.8 billion [school shift]. For the 2013 year, of all the states, we rank 24th in per-pupil expenditures, so we’ve worked our way just back into the middle. There’s still a lot more need out there that has not been met for a long time.
CR: Overall, Minnesota students perform very well, but there is still an existing achievement gap. How do you convince minority voters that you are working to address the problem?
Dayton: What we’ve heard from the experts is that early childhood education, all-day kindergarten, read by third grade initiative — all of which we’ve started in my first term — are the best ways known to close the achievement gap. We’ve seen the first signs in state testing of, particularly, fourth-graders. They were number one in the nation in math, and African-Americans were number four in math. We’ve seen an increase in readiness for kindergarten from 60 percent in 2010 to 72 percent. So, we’ve seen some gains. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and we need to instill that in all the schools, and take the best practices. I think we’ve made some progress, but there’s a lot more we need to do.