Eager to avoid the kind of contentious finish that has marred recent legislative sessions, and trying to build political support for his priorities, Gov. Mark Dayton in recent weeks has stepped up outreach to state lawmakers in a series of bipartisan private meetings.
The goal is to advance his own understanding of what matters to legislators and “find areas of common ground,” Dayton said in a recent interview. Topics at the four small-group meetings so far were transportation, energy, higher education and public schools. He also meets regularly with legislative leaders from both parties.
Recuperating on Friday from his cancer surgery a day earlier, Dayton has plans to resume the meetings soon.
The DFL governor, despite nearly four decades in government, has struggled to master the art of legislative politics. His short stint as a U.S. senator left Dayton frustrated at the often slow pace and unusual rhythms of making law, and as governor he has at times alienated legislators whose support is necessary to further his goals.
Two years ago, as Dayton and a politically divided Legislature struggled to agree on a two-year budget, Dayton was the target of pointed criticism by some lawmakers, including Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, that he failed to amass broad legislative support for the two items at the top of his legislative agenda: universal preschool and a 10-year transportation funding plan. Both proposals have largely languished since then.
“It was criticism from people whose views were determinative,” said Dayton, who’s not running for re-election and has less than two years left in office. “I accept the criticism because that was their view, and their view is their view. It’s something I wanted to remedy certainly this year.”
Relations between Dayton and lawmakers have been off to a better-than-usual start in the current session, which started in January. They struck a deal on financial rebates for health insurance customers hit by spiking premiums, and this week Dayton signed a Republican-initiated bill allowing Xcel Energy to build a natural gas power plant.
“We feel good about the bills that have passed and the governor has signed,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “We feel we have worked really well on those. We have tried to set a different tone, a tone of cooperation and wanting to work together. We’ve demonstrated that.”
Daudt, whose own relationship with the governor noticeably soured in 2016, said it’s been good this session and that they are “having about the same level of conversations we’ve always had during this point in session.”
Still, it’s not easy to please all 201 legislators.
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said he was frustrated by a recent meeting with officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — led by a Dayton appointee — to discuss his bill to overhaul environmental permitting and eliminate the Environmental Quality Board. Fabian, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said he was told the governor opposed his bill and would not negotiate its contents. The meeting, scheduled for an hour, ended after only a few minutes, he said.
“I understand we have some differences,” Fabian said. “When do we not have differences around this place? I get that. But in order to be able to address our differences and move on and come to some sort of agreement, we need to talk about stuff. Would you say I’m frustrated? Yes, very much.”
Jaime Tincher, Dayton’s chief of staff, said that’s not unusual: “Members of the Governor’s Cabinet and senior staff regularly negotiate with members of the Legislature, but only Mark Dayton was elected by the people of Minnesota to be their governor and make decisions on their behalf,” she said in a statement responding to Fabian’s criticism.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, participated in Dayton’s recent transportation meeting. They have generally included Republican chairs of the pertinent committees, ranking DFL members and a few legislative staffers.
Set in the Governor’s Cabinet Room, with light refreshments on hand, the meetings have featured freewheeling discussions and an opportunity to become better acquainted with one another, Hornstein said. They’ve been cordial and not too detailed on policy, he said.
“It was more an airing of fairly familiar positions,” Hornstein said.
Rep. Jenifer Loon, chairwoman of the House Education Finance Committee, recalled that when Dayton proposed offering universal preschool to all 4-year-olds through public schools in 2015, he never sought a meeting with her to pitch his priority. Divisions over how to best offer early-childhood education pushed that session into overtime after Dayton vetoed the education budget bill and two other major spending bills.
The disagreements over expanding preschool options still persist, but Loon said there appears to be widespread support for Dayton’s proposal this year to boost the per-pupil funding formula.
“I’d like to be able to do that,” Loon said. She noted that this year, 30 Republicans co-sponsored a bill to increase state funding by 2 percent each year — the same amount Dayton proposed.