Vowing to put Minnesotans back to work, Mark Dayton became governor Monday in a ceremony marked with stark warnings about the state's fiscal health and the difficult road ahead.

With his two grown sons standing beside him in St. Paul's historic Landmark Center, Dayton took the oath of office at noon, becoming the state's first Democratic governor in 20 years. In the short speech that followed, Dayton said his proposals to restore prosperity would be "reasonable, balanced -- and painful, because I see no easy alternative."

Facing a Republican-led Legislature that has pledged to block any tax increases, Dayton said that "I will insist that any final solution make Minnesota's overall tax burden more progressive, not more regressive. I respect that no one likes paying taxes, and almost everyone would like to pay less, which is why it's essential that everyone paying taxes knows everyone else is paying their fair share."

To those who believe the state's $6.2 billion deficit can be balanced without a tax increase, Dayton said, "if you can do it without destroying our schools, hospitals and public safety, please send me your bill so I can sign it immediately."

Outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty sat quietly in the second row of the audience as Dayton described a state and nation that he said had declined in the previous years of mostly Republican rule.

"The past decade has left our country, our state and many of our citizens worse off than before, with lower standards of living, larger debts and deficits, and less assured of future success," Dayton said. Pawlenty later declined to react to Dayton's assessment.

"This is a day to congratulate Governor Dayton and give him our best ... and that's what we are doing," said Pawlenty, who left what Dayton said was a "very gracious" note for him on his new desk.

Job creation a priority

Dayton said the state must take a new direction.

"The stakes now are high," he said. "This coming decade will determine whether we suffer the historical declines of previous superpowers or write a new chapter for future historians. If anyone can do it, we can. And we must."

A former U.S. senator who has spent nearly three decades in public life, Dayton, 63, takes office as Minnesota suffers through one of its gravest periods since the Great Depression.

The top priority, Dayton said, would be creating jobs. More than 200,000 Minnesotans are unemployed, he said, and many more are underemployed.

In a speech marked frequently by cheers, Dayton said he would also seek a budget that was balanced fairly and improved government services, to ensure that tax dollars were well spent.

He openly asked Minnesotans to help with those tasks -- "working," "better" and "together" were among the words he used most in his inaugural address.

Dayton asked businesses to adopt schools to ensure their success, Minnesotans to volunteer to those in need and lawmakers to work with him to solve the state's burgeoning problems.

"We were all elected by just a fraction of Minnesotans," said the new governor, who officially won only after a recount that awarded him victory by about 9,000 votes.

"He needs to do what he did on the campaign trail, which is to keep speaking honestly to the people of Minnesota about the challenges that are facing us," said state Rep. Paul Thissen, a Minneapolis DFLer who will become minority leader on Tuesday. "The one thing he can do consistently is stay honest and true to yourself."

Former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley, an Independence Party member close to former Gov. Jesse Ventura, said Dayton's plea for unity may go unmet.

"He can probably find some common ground on small issues, like some workforce development," he said. "But on the big issues, like the budget, I don't see a way out. The differences are so huge: No taxes versus taxes."

Dayton, who campaigned on higher taxes, said he and the Republicans who campaigned on lower taxes and less government must find a way to knit the fabric of the state out of their contrasting threads.

"If we only serve the people who voted for us, we guarantee destructive division, and we risk paralyzing gridlock," he said.

The new governor offered Republican lawmakers an olive branch of compromise on Monday, even before he was sworn in.

Dayton had planned to sign into law an executive order on Tuesday that would expand Medicaid to thousands of very low-income Minnesotans. Tuesday is the ceremony-filled day when lawmakers are sworn in and the new Republican majorities officially take control. Republicans felt the bill-signing would steal a bit of their thunder and incoming House Speaker Kurt Zellers asked Dayton to delay it. The governor acceded, moving the signing to Wednesday to show he means what he says about cooperation.

"We look forward to similar actions on their part to show that they also mean it," said Dayton's chief of staff, Tina Smith.

Call for collaboration

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said she appreciated the "courtesy" and took to heart Dayton's desire for collaboration.

"He talked about a new tone in St. Paul and I welcome that," Koch said. "I think we are going to have some good, honest disagreements, but you can do that in a cordial and respectful way. I am hopeful this tone will continue."

College student Noam Freshman echoed that sentiment -- within limits.

While the main floor filled with a sea of finely dressed political lions, operatives and lobbyists, Freshman joined the everyday residents who watched intently from the multi-tiered balconies above. Many wore blue jeans, sweatshirts and Mark Dayton campaign buttons.

Freshman sat on a chair high above the event, reading the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" before the ceremony filled with short speeches, the swearing-in of several state office holders and a song from a youth choir.

"I think it will be difficult for him, especially with the divided government in Minnesota. I am hoping he'll find some common ground with Republicans," he said. "But I also want to him to stand his ground."

Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • rachel.stassen-berger@startribune.com Baird Helgeson • baird.helgeson@startribune.com