Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday night called on some of the state's most powerful business leaders to join his administration in addressing critical problems facing the state.

"I am trying to identify those who are willing to join in partnership," Dayton told about 700 business leaders at the Minnesota Business Partnership's annual dinner in downtown Minneapolis.

The business group has had a frosty relationship with the governor. Many of its members worked hard to defeat him, fearing his proposed tax increases would snuff out the anemic economic recovery. As Dayton came to the podium, the song, "Why can't we be friends?" boomed from the speakers.

Many in the crowd seemed willing to entertain that overture, including Ken Powell, chairman of the Business Partnership, who told the crowd that Dayton had shown himself to be a friend of the state's businesses.

"He's very willing and very open to the views of business community," said Powell, chairman and CEO of General Mills. "He is open to the lessons we have learned."

Dayton told the business leaders that the state is at a critical time in addressing higher education and infrastructure needs, including a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.

Since resolving the government shutdown this summer, Dayton has turned his focus to job creation and the economy. Dayton's administration and the state's well-being have much at stake in the effort. Minnesota's economy has been languishing for years, resulting in lower-than-expected tax collections and back-to-back state government deficits.

To patch up the state's budget, the state has imposed massive budget reductions, drained reserves and borrowed billions of dollars from public schools. If Minnesota's economy remains listless, Dayton and legislators could be back looking at more cuts, borrowing or tax hikes.

Dayton said the state has chronic deficiencies in higher education spending and capital investments like roads, sewers and broadband Internet access.

If our state were a patient, "the doctors would call it critical," he said. "If that human patient were a child or grandchild, wouldn't we demand immediate action?"

Without outlining specifics, Dayton called for more investment in the state's colleges and universities.

"More money is not guaranteed to make them better, but less money is almost certainly guaranteed to make them worse," he said.

He wants business leaders to get involved to help identify "pillars of excellence" in the higher education system that can be improved and built upon.

Dayton also called on business leaders to help rebuild the state's infrastructure and asked for support of a "people's stadium" where the Minnesota Vikings can play for decades to come.

"I need you to pledge your support and get that project approved in the next month," he said, drawing applause.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288