A month into his tenure as governor, Mark Dayton has served up one surprise after another to people on both sides of the aisle who thought they knew him.

The liberal Democrat has taken some decidedly business-friendly stances. He has opened his office, his residence and even his official trips to political opponents, inviting Republican lawmakers to travel with him to their districts. His commissioner picks have won praise from traditionally feuding parties.

When Republicans proffered measures to streamline the environmental permits for businesses, Dayton trumped them by fast-tracking the move with an executive order. While chastising the GOP for going after teachers unions, he has offered to meet them on changes to teacher licensing.

"I think the mistake most people make is they underestimate him," said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership. "I have expected him to be savvy politically and disciplined as a governor but he has surprised me with a couple of the really smart things he's done. ... They were just out of the box."

That won't change the bitter battles to come.

Weaver and other business leaders opposed Dayton in the 2010 campaign in part because he wanted to raise income taxes on the wealthy.

Dayton has made clear that when his budget comes out on Feb. 15, he still intends to propose a tax hike and Republican leaders have shown few signs of easing their anti-tax stance.

Maintaining goodwill

Dayton does start his term with a goodwill that former Gov. Tim Pawlenty lacked from opposing lawmakers after years of budget battles.

It is a friendliness that Dayton has been careful to curry. He has assiduously avoided saying he will veto bills. That tactic stands in stark contrast to Pawlenty, who set the modern record for vetoes and took to labeling some bills "veto-bait."

Dayton has a different take. "Governor Dayton hasn't ruled this bill out. He hasn't used the word veto and I appreciate that," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina, before the Senate passed a $1 billion budget cut bill that Dayton has criticized.

Dayton also has encouraged his appointees to get to know the lawmakers who will work on their issues.

"He's certainly making an effort to be open. He's had a lot of folks out to the residence and I think he is making a conscious effort to get the Legislature and the commissioners to know each other," said Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton. Magnus traveled with Dayton to Jackson, Minn., to laud a local business' plans to hire another 100 workers and has found common ground with Dayton on China-Minnesota agricultural trade issues and rural development.

Trade issues are just one element of an emerging strategy that could allow Dayton to navigate between his DFL base and the GOP Legislature to complete his goals.

In addition to quickly adopting the streamlined permits, Dayton has said he hopes for a compromise alternative teacher licensing proposal this week -- another item that has been high on the Republican priority list. A similar measure died last year in a Legislature that was under DFL control.

Challenges ahead

He'll need all the bipartisan goodwill he can muster for his next task -- balancing a budget that has a projected deficit of $6.2 billion.

For weeks the former state auditor has spent six to eight hours a day poring over details of the state's finances.

"He is very street-level. Very curious about the practical implications of new spending, new cuts," said Jim Schowalter, the Minnesota Management and Budget commissioner.

Closing the budget gap has been a miserable slog, Dayton said, and will end in pain.

"Nobody will be more critical of this budget than I," he said.

Dayton's typically self-effacing style has disarmed state employees accustomed to more formal relations with a governor.

An intimate example: "The simplest and most amazing thing is to come into a meeting and have him stand up and say, 'Can I get anybody coffee?'" said Schowalter, a longtime state employee. "It's like, 'No, Governor. We bring you coffee.' "

Dayton will be all business on Wednesday when he enters the House chamber to give his first State of the State speech to a joint session of the Legislature.

Andrea Mokros, Dayton's deputy chief of staff, said the governor will talk of the need for "shared sacrifice," the need for transparency and accountability in government, and his plans for "getting Minnesota working again."

Dayton, who says he has no future political plans after he leaves the governor's office, will also talk of his long-range vision for the future of the state.

"He is focused on the state he leaves behind," Mokros said.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • rachel.stassen-berger@startribune.com