Through 35 years of public life, Mark Dayton has shown little inclination to rest on laurels. That's reassuring, because Dayton is bound to hear a good deal of praise as he completes his first year as governor on Tuesday.
Dayton's term is only a quarter spent. Much that he set out to do remains undone. A 20-day government shutdown last July is a permanent blot on the records of both Dayton and the 2011 Legislature. The temporary fiscal measures used to end the shutdown do none of them credit.
But the DFL governor's overall performance to date has been strong enough to win over skeptics, rally support from unexpected sources and earn the grudging respect of partisan opponents. He has turned his political slogan -- "Building a Better Minnesota" -- into a credible description of not just intentions, but accomplishments.
The performance measures that Dayton would choose for himself relate to jobs and the economy. He would be the first to say that the current 5.9 percent state unemployment rate is too high, and that it understates the distress of underemployed and discouraged would-be workers.
But Minnesota is exhibiting more economic vitality than is much of the rest of the country, and Dayton can take credit for some of the sparks. The $500 million bonding bill that he insisted be part of last summer's budget deal is a tonic to depressed construction industries. His speed-up of the business permitting process is hastening job creation. His decision to enroll the state's lowest-income childless adults in Medicaid shored up health care employment, especially in rural Minnesota.
More significant are the contributions that state government can make to prosperity over the long term, through smart investments in human capital, financed with fair and competitive tax policies.
Dayton deserves applause on the former front and a nudge on the latter. His vetoes blocked the worst of GOP-backed spending cuts for higher education and human services. His administration is making health dollars stretch farther; a switch to competitive bidding for state health contracts is projected to save nearly $250 million by mid-2013. He landed $45 million in federal funds for a rating system deemed crucial for improving preschool education in child care settings.
Tax policy was this newspaper's biggest disagreement with candidate Dayton in 2010. (Our endorsement went to the Independence Party's Tom Horner.) Dayton's call for higher income taxes on the wealthy struck us as simplistic and anticompetitive.
A more nuanced tax policy message has recently come from the Dayton camp. Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans is soliciting public input for an overhaul of the state tax code that could involve broadening the sales tax base and eliminating income tax loopholes. That's a more promising path, chosen by a more nimble and risk-tolerant chief executive than his critics expected.
"Confounding critics" would be a fitting theme for this governor's first year. Though labeled "erratic" by partisan opponents, he has been steady and focused. Accused of being unfriendly to business, he quickly signed onto environmental permitting and teacher licensure changes long sought by the business lobby. Faulted as remote while a U.S. senator (2000-2006), he has been an active, visible governor, impressing audiences with his willingness to listen as well as speak.
Despite the bitterness of the shutdown, Dayton has built warmer working relationships with legislators of the opposite party than the Capitol has witnessed in years. That change bodes well for action on what should be the 2012 session's prize -- a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. Dayton's push to anchor the Vikings in this state has been commendable. We're rooting for him to be just as vigorous on behalf of a downtown Minneapolis site when the time to do so is right.
Unlike his two immediate predecessors, Dayton was schooled in the state's executive branch. He was raised in a household that understood the role of business executives. Dayton has an expansive view of what a governor can do.
In one instance, his view has seemed too expansive. Dayton's November move to allow state-subsidized child-care providers to vote to unionize was met with hostility by union-averse Republicans, who said it exceeded gubernatorial authority. A Ramsey County judge agreed when he stopped the election with a temporary injunction.
If Dayton has a strong case to make that unionization would improve the learning that happens in child-care settings, Minnesotans have yet to hear it. Unless they do, the charge that Dayton was merely offering unions political payback may stick.
That would be unfortunate, because it dents the reputation for selfless public service that is among Dayton's best governing assets. Even Minnesotans who disagree with him on key issues seldom fault his motives or accuse him of self-dealing. At age 64, his political ambition appears to be to leave Minnesota a better state at the end of his term, and nothing more. It's a laudable ambition that he is largely on track to fulfill.