You don’t have to be a Garth Brooks fan to appreciate Gov. Mark Dayton. But knowing what Dayton did last weekend to help this state’s Brooks fans have more opportunity to see the country singer next May says a good deal about the DFL governor who will end his long public career on Jan. 7.
With characteristically little fanfare, Dayton reached out to Brooks the week before last after some 50,000 ticket-seeking fans were left empty-handed when a scheduled May 4, 2019, concert at U.S. Bank Stadium sold out. Dayton went public to advocate for them. Brooks was impressed by the governor’s “sweet” gesture. By last Monday, a second show had been arranged for May 3 — and Dayton was suggesting that, since he’ll be out of work in May, he might offer his services as a stagehand.
None of that is likely surprising to Minnesotans, some of whom have watched the scion of the state’s most famous retailing family since his hockey goalie days at Blake School and Yale University. Or since he joined the staff of Gov. Rudy Perpich 41 years ago after a teaching stint in New York, nonprofit work in Boston and staff work for then-U. S. Sen. Walter Mondale. His career also includes service as state economic development commissioner, state auditor and U.S. senator for one term, 2001-2007.
Minnesotans know Dayton well. They know a quirky fellow with a big heart, a deep love of Minnesota, a strong calling to public service, an unpredictable streak and too much humility to comfortably toot his own horn. But as he leaves office, a fanfare is in order, albeit one with a few discordant notes. Dayton has served this state well and deserves its thanks.
Dayton, 71, won the governorship in 2010 promising to reverse the disinvestment in education and social services that occurred during the two terms of his predecessor, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and saying he was willing to raise taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans (himself among them) to do so. With the help of a recovering economy and, in 2013-14, a DFL-controlled Legislature, he made good on both promises. As a result, both K-12 schools and public higher education are stronger, and state revenue is better able to rise apace with an economy in which rewards have disproportionately flowed to upper-income earners.
The state fiscal stability that ensued ranks among Dayton’s top achievements. It kept state and local borrowing costs down, made possible long-overdue investments in all-day kindergarten, expanded preschool programs as well as aid to cities and counties, and built the state’s reserves to more than $2 billion — the kind of cushion a $46 billion biennial budget requires.
Dayton has been a champion for social, racial and economic justice. On May 14, 2013, he proudly signed into law a bill legalizing same-sex marriages. He prodded state government to step up minority hiring; brought more diversity to the courts, restoring a female majority to the Minnesota Supreme Court (Perpich installed the first one); and secured an increase in the minimum wage.
He worked to keep health insurance available and affordable, with mixed success. His first act as governor was to make more low-income Minnesotans eligible for Medicaid. In his final legislative session, Republican legislators rejected his call to allow more Minnesotans with average means to buy coverage through MinnesotaCare, the state’s insurance program for the working poor. For the sake of bringing a 2011 government shutdown to an end, he “agreed to” (though he did not “agree with”) a December 2019 sunset on the provider tax that funds health care programs. That sunset is now looming, creating a headache for his successor, DFL Gov.-elect Tim Walz.
Following Perpich’s lead, Dayton has been a builder with an eye to more “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He repeatedly called for more roads, transit, higher education buildings, rural broadband and other infrastructure improvements than the Legislature has been willing to authorize. He was instrumental in securing state funding for U.S. Bank Stadium, St. Paul’s CHS Field, civic centers in Mankato, St. Cloud and Rochester, and the Destination Medical Center project in Rochester. The State Capitol’s restoration would not have happened without his support.
Despite those successes, Dayton struggled to govern with the Republicans who controlled the state House for six and the Senate for four of his eight years. Most of those six sessions ended with either a flurry of vetoes, a special session to complete essential bills or a raft of important unfinished business. End-of-session negotiations were more often characterized by anger than compromise. The 2011 impasse led to a 20-day government shutdown; another to a court fight over gubernatorial veto power. Dayton won that 2017 lawsuit but found that it gave him no leverage in achieving his real goal, the reopening of negotiations over a tax bill that he had signed despite deeming it too large for the state’s fiscal comfort.
That’s the sort of worry that weighs on Dayton as he leaves office, he told an editorial writer. He’s conscious of unmet transportation needs, unanswered health care funding questions and unfinished work to improve water quality. He warned that the underfunding of IT systems and cybersecurity puts the state at risk for more of the kind of trouble seen on his watch with the rollout of the MNsure health insurance exchange and the MNLARS vehicle licensing platform.
He also regrets that recurring health problems — hip surgery, prostate cancer and, most recently, lung damage after back-to-back spinal surgeries in October — have diminished his vigor and visibility. We share that regret. But like many Minnesotans, we admire Dayton’s tenacity. He has served at considerable personal cost, demonstrating a gritty commitment to living up to the trust voters placed in him.
This year’s voters signaled that they still trust the course Dayton charted. He’ll be the first DFL governor in state history to be succeeded by another DFLer of the voters’ choosing. Minnesotans learned last week that the budget commissioner who ably served Dayton, Myron Frans, will continue that role in the Walz administration. That’s uncommon continuity in state government. That too is to Dayton’s credit. It burnishes a substantial legacy.