The meeting of the nation’s governors also saw Dayton named chair of the Midwestern Governors Association.
WASHINGTON – Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton left a White House meeting with President Obama on Monday saying it “doesn’t look at all promising” that Congress would act this week to stop a massive round of federal budget cuts known as “sequestration.”
Dayton, attending a national governors’ conference, said he saw for the first time Monday the White House’s version of the effect the scheduled budget cuts could have on health and education spending in Minnesota and other states.
In his first extensive comments on the sequester, Dayton said that while Minnesota might not suffer as much as other states, “the overall economic slowdown has a larger impact.” Sequestration is a legal procedure in which automatic spending cuts are triggered, with this round stemming from the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Dayton noted that federal aid in areas like education, research and public health make up a third of the state’s budget. Even if Minnesota can handle the effects better than most other states, he said, “it’s all going to be negative.”
Republican governors emerging from the White House meeting cast a more critical eye on Obama. Among them was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who said the White House numbers were designed for “political purposes, not to educate the governors.”
Turning up the heat on Congress, the White House is projecting detailed cuts to programs in every state this year, including $7 million from primary and secondary education in Minnesota, plus an additional $9.2 million from special education in the state.
Law enforcement and job assistance grants would also be hit hard, meaning around 23,270 fewer Minnesotans would get job skills training under sequestration, which is scheduled to begin on Friday unless Congress acts to delay or replace the cuts.
“These cuts do not have to happen,” Obama told the governors. “Congress can turn them off anytime with just a little bit of compromise. While you are in town, I hope that you speak with your congressional delegation.”
But Monday’s meeting with the governors, who often see themselves as more practical than their counterparts in Congress, showed many of the same partisan divisions, if somewhat more muted.
“We are all concerned,” Dayton said of Obama’s meeting with the National Governors Association. “It divided a little bit by political party. But even the Republican governors want to get this resolved, and worry about the effect on their states.”
Dayton and other Democrats stressed Obama’s willingness to talk about budget cuts in return for increased taxes, or “revenue,” in Washington parlance. “It’s total unwillingness to compromise,” Dayton said of congressional Republicans, whom he compared to Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature.
Republicans, represented by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a potential presidential contender, called on Obama to embrace proposals passed by the GOP-led House that would set the stage for deeper budget cuts and money-saving reforms in federal retirement and health programs.
“It’s time for the president to show leadership,” Jindal said. “Every family has to balance their budget. ... The reality is, it can be done.” He accused the White House of “trying to scare the American people” with gloomy predictions about program cuts.
However, just last week Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline expressed concern about the sequester, estimating that up to 4,000 defense-related jobs in Minnesota could be lost. “Minnesotans will feel it,” Kline said, “because it cuts across the board.”
House Speaker John Boehner, later on Monday, reiterated the GOP view that the $1.2 trillion, decade-long sequester was Obama’s idea as a backstop for a failed round of budget negotiations in July 2011, a contention that Democrats dispute.
“You know, the president proposed the sequester, yet he’s far more interested in holding campaign rallies than he is in urging his Senate Democrats to actually pass a plan,” Boehner said. He argued that while Obama and Senate Democrats seek to raise more taxes on the wealthy, the House has twice acted to replace the across-the-board cuts with more targeted reductions.
Dayton said that Obama told the governors Monday that the GOP plan, which avoids tax increases or defense cuts, would place most of the burden on safety-net programs for the poor and elderly. He said Obama told the governors, “How can I go to a senior citizen and say you’re going to have to pay a higher Medicare premium when we’re not willing to go to the multimillionaire who has a special tax loophole and close that?”
For Dayton, returning from a National Guard trip to Norway, the governors’ meeting in Washington provided a broader platform for his own proposals to increase certain taxes in Minnesota, where he will lay out new tax and spending projections on Thursday.
The meeting also saw Dayton elevated to chair of the Midwestern Governors Association, a post he said he will use to highlight long-term regional efforts to combat invasive species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels.
But short-term, much of Dayton’s time in the coming months is apt to be spent adjusting to budget realities in Washington. “As of today, it doesn’t look at all promising,” he said. “On the other hand, things happen usually at the very last minute ... So I would say between 10 p.m. and midnight on Thursday night anything is possible. But it does not look promising now.”
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune’s Washington bureau. •