On Monday night, Gov. Mark Dayton gave his seventh and second-to-last State of the State, presenting himself as the last bulwark against “some politicians” — read: Republican majorities — who are prepping “a feast of tax giveaways to a handful of wealthy individuals, corporations, and special interests.”
About 40 minutes into his speech, Dayton took a long, unsteady sip of water. He struggled through a few words of his next line, head nodding, and slumped over the podium. An eerie silence fell over the Capitol as Republicans called the speech to a halt.
Then the next day, the governor casually disclosed he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer, saying he’d stay on the job while seeking treatment.
Dayton’s lack of concern for his own welfare is one reason so many Minnesotans respect him. But these are scary times for progressives in this state. Mark Dayton’s all they’ve got left.
He had already predicted a “very difficult” session, citing the likelihood that Republicans — most importantly, House Speaker Kurt Daudt — will play politics with the budget, tilting ever right-ward as they jockey for position in a 2018 governor’s race.
At 69, and with no races left to run, Dayton’s got no skin in the game. That ought to make him the only person worth listening to. Instead, it somehow makes him irrelevant, a “lame duck” with a measly 700-some days left in office.
But now’s a good time for bullish conservatives in the Capitol to remember one thing: Mark Dayton is more popular than the lot of you combined.
In 2014, Dayton became the first governor in 20 years to win more than 50 percent of the vote. His 59 percent approval rating is 13th-highest among American governors.
Minnesotans have their reasons. Roughly 1.4 billion of them: the state’s budget surplus, a $6 billion turnaround from when he took office. Dayton arrived at it by taxing the wealthiest, smokers, and corporations. Dayton wants to spend it on childcare, early learning, tax cuts for families, broadband internet for rural people, jobs and education programs for minorities.
Dayton took from the rich and wants to give it to the poor. He’s Robin Hood with creaky hips and a frown.
That grimace can be blamed on how much he hates the process. And how worried he is for his state.
With months before the deadline, he’s already warned that a budget impasse might end in a shutdown. He’s recalling 2011, when last he tussled with Republican majorities and eventually signed a deal he hated, just to keep the government in operation.
Is there any reason to think that won’t happen again?
“No,” one DFL insider said, sighing. “We care, and they don’t. The mentality among some of these people on the right wing of the right wing is just to watch the whole thing burn.”
Here’s how that’ll work: Conservatives point to the surplus as a sign the state is “over-taxed” and announce a plan to shred it with tax cuts. That’s always popular, except for those who don’t pay taxes. Namely, the kids and poor people Dayton likes.
Republicans haven’t rolled out their tax bill yet, but let’s assume they’ll follow the helpful guidance of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. They usually do. The corporate powerhouse spends millions backing Republicans, then spends millions more on lobbying to remind them. And the Chamber’s priorities are getting rid of corporate property taxes and slashing corporate income taxes.
The Chamber also wants to get rid of the estate tax (i.e. the villainous “death tax”), which, at its $2 million threshold, affects only the wealthiest 3 percent of recently dead Minnesotans.
Granting these rich man’s wishes would leave the state billions of dollars in debt within a few years... unless we just stopped paying for stuff. In late December, key Republicans sent an ominous letter to state agencies, asking them to prepare plans for how they would weather a 10 percent budget cut.
That’s steep, even in a time of deficit. To threaten that cut in a time of surplus is to declare war on the very idea of government.
These days even Dayton’s successes look like failures in waiting. Last week he announced Minnesota would receive $350 million in federal funds to buy farmland surrounding bodies of water. But only if the state ponies up nearly $100 million.
When it comes to money for clean water, the well might be dry. While questioning a state water regulator, Rep. Mark Uglem (R-Champlin), a former paint manufacturing executive, asked why Minnesota doesn’t consult with “other outside experts that disagree with your scientific analysis.”
And cattle farming Rep. Dale Lueck (R-Aitkin) wondered why regulators don’t outsource their analysis to “the private sector,” who could “tell you ‘no’ in a microsecond” if it’s a bad idea.
In other words, just send a note to businesses asking, “Hey, sorry to bother you, but do you think we should regulate you?”
It’s with these backbenchers — influenced by corporate cash and untethered from scientific fact — that Dayton must negotiate. Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka might actually want what’s best for the state. But they’re bound by the even-farther-right, the “watch it burn” caucus, who act as if they wish the state government would just go out of business.
Faced with this prospect, it’s no wonder Dayton seems sad and lonely. This is not how he pictured the twilight years of his public service.
Buck up, Governor. After all these years, the people of Minnesota still like you. Remember that, and remind them why.
More from Mike Mullen: