Minnesota is back where it belongs. It has resumed its strong position among Midwestern states in employment, incomes, educational attainment and quality of life. Gov. Mark Dayton can’t take sole credit for the rebound from recession — nor does this modest leader make that claim. But the DFLer’s stewardship since 2011 has made a positive contribution to recovery, and his aims for a second term would continue that course. Dayton has earned re-election.
That call was closer for the Editorial Board than it might have been had Republicans chosen someone other than Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson to challenge Dayton. Johnson, 47, is gubernatorial material. He was our GOP primary pick in a four-way field, and he’s backed by the Independence Party candidate we favored over Dayton four years ago, Tom Horner. Voters who want a state government that’s leaner and more trusting of the marketplace to solve public problems can opt for Johnson without concern that he is unprepared, excessively doctrinaire or temperamentally ill-suited to the office. (The same cannot be said of Hannah Nicollet, this year’s Independence candidate for governor.)
Johnson offers some appealing prescriptions for sore spots that afflict this state. Take the performance of K-12 education. Unlike Dayton, Johnson is unfettered to Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union. He’s eager to pursue changes in teacher licensure and tenure rules that might strengthen the state’s teaching corps — versions of which Dayton vetoed. He would aim to hasten the improvement of underperforming public schools by empowering parents to initiate change.
Johnson is also more open to changing the state’s tax code in ways that would better align Minnesota competitively with other states, by broadening the sales tax to more consumer purchases while reducing its rate. Dayton stumbled on his 2013 foray into tax reform, first insisting on adding business services to the sales tax base as well, then retreating from base-broadening when the uncompetitive implications of the business services tax became clear. Though Dayton says he remains interested in reform of the state’s corporate income tax, his appetite for tax reform is plainly diminished.
Johnson would not be so impeded. But his desire to not just reform state taxes but also reduce them, to a level he does not specify, should give Minnesotans pause. So should his unwillingness to say where he would cut spending, calling instead for outside audits that would duplicate work already done quite independently by the Office of the Legislative Auditor.
State government stability is itself a competitive asset, one Minnesotans should not want to jeopardize again. Dayton deserves credit for the fiscal stability that has returned on his watch. His push to correct the oversized income tax cuts enacted in 1999 and 2000 was important to that change, as was the discipline to enlarge the state’s reserves and repay more than $2 billion owed to school districts.
The state’s stronger balance sheet leads a long list of first-term accomplishments justifying Dayton’s re-election. Also there: All-day kindergarten. Beefed-up funding for preschool for needy families. Same-sex marriage. Human services funding reform, saving Minnesota taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year. A higher minimum wage. An end to a decade of disinvestment in higher education. Support for the Rochester infrastructure that’s crucial to Mayo Clinic expansion. A renewed partnership with local governments, slowing the increase in property taxes. Alternative teacher licensure and teacher performance evaluation.
We wish that major new transportation investments were on that list. Dayton has stalled a comprehensive response to a 2012 blue-ribbon panel’s conclusion that $21.2 billion more is needed over the next 20 years to keep Minnesotans as mobile as they are now.
But in this campaign, Dayton is not shrinking from the issue. He’s speaking out about the need to invest more in transportation and do so in part by raising taxes on motor fuels. Johnson rejects the latter. His refusal to consider a gas tax increase would make a major boost in transportation funding harder to achieve. It invites a reprise of the fight that dominated Capitol politics in 2005-08 — a drama we’d rather not see again.
Dayton’s credits also include extending the benefits of health insurance to more than 250,000 previously uninsured Minnesotans, by embracing the federal Affordable Care Act. But no one, least of all Dayton, is happy with the performance of MNsure to date or the prospect some Minnesotans face of higher premiums next year and beyond. Dayton and Johnson agree that MNsure needs work. But Johnson is peddling wishful thinking when he suggests that Minnesota can obtain a sweeping waiver from the federal government in 2017 and abandon a government-run exchange.
The second-term agenda Dayton outlines befits him. It’s substantial but not slick, and focused on jobs. He wants state government to be an ally of Minnesota’s high-tech industries by better meeting their need for highly skilled workers, and of the health care and medical technology industries by shoring up the University of Minnesota Medical School. He wants a literacy push to boost chances that children read proficiently by grade three, and he seeks more funding for early ed.
He also wants clean energy and robust infrastructure investments, including expansion of light-rail transit, to continue. By comparison, if Johnson is elected, chances are good that climate change will fall off the state’s agenda and the Green Line will be the last light-rail leg built for a long time.
Dayton, 67, is making his sixth and what he says will be his last bid for statewide office. After a lifetime of public service, he’s a well-known quantity who is offering Minnesota something rare — a governorship unbound by calculations about how to win the next election. We expect that will look a lot like what Minnesotans saw in Dayton’s first term. If it does, this state will be well served.