I once witnessed not-yet-Sen. or Gov. Mark Dayton, on a dare by his sons, hurtle skyward and bounce back very near the ground while strapped in a giant bungee-cord ride at the Minnesota State Fair. And walk away under his own power.
At the 2014 fair, I saw the DFL governor gamely smile as a bucket of ice water was dumped on his head to raise money to combat ALS. He then strolled away, though an aide with a towel stayed close by.
Our interview Thursday, the fair’s opening day, on the Star Tribune booth’s stage had to be tame by comparison. But the 71-year-old governor rode away in a golf cart.
Time changes all of us, not always in welcome ways. Maybe that’s why part of the State Fair’s appeal is its year-in, year-out constancy. I’d say that’s also part of the appeal of Mark Dayton.
After a lifetime in state politics, Dayton is serving his eighth and final year as governor. It was the eighth time during those years that he agreed to an interview at the Strib’s booth. Some of the fairgoers who gathered ’round said they’d caught our act in previous years and wanted to see whether this year’s version would be better.
Better? I’m not the one to judge. But consistent? It’s remarkable that a politician once portrayed by his opponents as erratic is so unchanging in his thinking about state government’s rightful role and best practices.
• Dayton ran for governor in 2010 saying he wanted to end a long run of red ink in the state’s budget by raising the taxes paid by the most affluent Minnesotans. (He did just that, righting the budget with help from a recovering national economy.) He said Thursday that the biggest challenge the next governor will face is keeping the state budget in the black.
“Everything state government does depends upon having sufficient resources, and the needs are growing,” he said. More than ever, Minnesota needs a well-educated workforce and help for a growing population with mental and physical disorders, he said. State government is the primary provider of both education and human services.
• Dayton said in 2010 he would increase spending for public education each year as governor, “no excuses, no exceptions.” He made good on that vow. On Thursday, he was still making the case for more education spending.
“By all objective measures, we have a high-quality education system,” he said. “We rank in the middle of the states in funding for K-12 education, so we actually get more than we pay for. But the demands on our schools are greater and greater, and [given a tightening labor market] we need everyone of working age to work at higher-skilled jobs. To shortchange education right now is just foolish.”
• Dayton repeatedly has called for an increase in the gas tax to pay for more road construction and a sales-tax increase for the sake of more transit services. The idea has been spurned by both Republican- and DFL-controlled Legislatures, who have preferred to direct an increasing share of surplus general-fund revenue to transportation. That hasn’t changed the governor’s mind.
“When the economy flattens or turns down and we get into a crunch, you’ll have transportation funding roller-coaster,” he said, noting that transportation projects typically lose to education and health care when budgets are tight.
He would have none of the argument that the gas tax will soon be made obsolete by electric vehicles. “We’ll need different sources” of revenue at some point, he said, but the gas tax “is still the main source of highway revenues and will be for a long time.”
All that is not to say that the governor is oblivious to the changes that the last several years have wrought. He’s keenly aware that a shortage of workers is becoming a drag on Minnesota’s economy. He knows well that while more Minnesotans have health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act and MNsure, many are paying too much and some lack insurance because of high costs. He laments the wage stagnation that has characterized the last several years, reciting stats this column cited only last week showing that, when adjusted for inflation, Minnesota’s median income declined slightly between 2009 and 2016.
I asked whether the mantra of his late political mentor, Gov. Rudy Perpich — “jobs, jobs, jobs” — should be amended by this year’s candidates to “workers, workers, workers.” Dayton didn’t fully endorse the revision.
“It’s certainly both — and it’s ‘good jobs, good jobs, good jobs,’ ” he said. “Employment has improved, but family incomes are no better. Most people don’t feel better off. They’re more insecure. Their retirement incomes are less assured.” Voters are restive as a result, he said.
But that doesn’t mean the basics of good state government should change, Dayton argued. In fact, it may be more important than ever to fund education generously, provide a decent safety net and shore up the state’s infrastructure. The knowledge economy and a growing, diversifying and aging population are demanding more of what state government provides, not less.
Voters are likely to hear about plenty of other topics at gubernatorial debates in the next two months. Already, Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz are saying more about immigration, guns, cybersecurity and state agency performance than any Dayton campaign did.
Dayton didn’t fault them Thursday for raising new topics. But he kept talking about the work of state government that he deems most important. And the fairgoers who stopped to listen applauded.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.