ST. CLOUD - For the first time since Minnesota's government shutdown began, Gov. Mark Dayton hit the road on Tuesday to promote his point of view, appearing before parents and teachers at a high school in St. Cloud.
"I'm asking the wealthiest Minnesotans to pay a little more in taxes so that children with special needs don't have to be denied services ... and that's a Minnesota value." It was the first stop in what will be a weeklong tour, and a sign that Dayton is no longer willing to wait for Republicans to make a move.
Dayton has weathered some criticism in DFL quarters for making several concessions in recent weeks, even offering to drop his call for higher income taxes on the wealthy. Over the weekend, in the absence of budget talks, he went silent. At the same time, the GOP put out an unwavering message -- the state spends enough -- cycled ceaselessly through social media, news conferences and partisan bloggers.
But on Tuesday, Dayton served notice that he would push as hard on his message as Republicans are on theirs.
His idea had fans. He was cheered, anti-tax Republicans were at times heckled and a few folks carried signs saying "Tax the Richest 2 Percent."
But as Dayton has moved from his bedrock theme of "tax the rich" to softer, less-tested ground in hopes of a compromise, he may find new challenges.
"He has been, at times, more flexible than I think he should be," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who has advised Dayton to stay "dug in" on a higher-income-tax proposal.
"Not only is it the best policy," Bakk said, "it's the best politics."
Bakk, who ran for governor last year, said Dayton has made his case well so far. Bakk said that, had he won and faced the same Republican Legislature, the state probably would have shut down, as well.
But, he added, "I think [Dayton's] been a little more compromising than I probably would have been."
It hasn't worked so far.
Ideas fall flat
Republicans have not offered a new budget proposal since the shutdown began on July 1. Although he still prefers to tax the wealthy, Dayton has told Republicans he would consider raising "sin" taxes, killing tax breaks, or lowering and broadening sales taxes to close the budget gap.
None of those offers has drawn support from GOP leaders.
In his search, Dayton has startled some allies.
After hours of budget negotiations just before the shutdown, the governor told DFL leaders he was about to offer to drop his income tax proposal in favor of a massive school funding shift.
"I said, 'Please don't do it,'" Bakk recalled. Shortly afterward, in a private meeting with only the governor and Republican and Democratic leaders, Dayton offered it anyway.
"I stood up and said 'I'm not going to be any part of this,'" Bakk said. He and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen then left. Bakk's memory conforms with recollections from Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, who also was at the meeting.
Dayton later backed off that shift as one Democratic lawmaker after another maligned it, school officials condemned it and Republicans added their disapproval.
But Dayton has continued to float ideas without any signs that Republicans are budging, or that Democrats fully support him.
On Tuesday morning, Thissen gathered those with shutdown stories in front of the Capitol and joined about two dozen DFL representatives in urging Republicans to pass the so-called millionaire tax. But he avoided answering whether his caucus would support the governor in raising other forms of revenue.
"The Republicans have said 'no' to all of those things, so I don't even know if it's a particularly relevant question," Thissen said. Democrats in the House and Senate have been willing, even eager, to go along with an income tax increase for the well-off for months.
Dayton will take his tour next to southern Minnesota, talking to seniors and the disabled, and later to Moorhead.
In St. Cloud on Tuesday, Dayton heard a lot to consider.
He sat at a U-shaped table with St. Cloud School District officials, two local teachers' union representatives, as well as Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, and Sen. David Brown, R-Becker.
As the governor began speaking, a cellphone rang, playing the theme song to the horror movie "The Exorcist."
Dayton laughed. "I wish there was a [phone] app for budget resolution."
Instead, he had to settle for some even-handed advice.
"The days of avoidance are over," St. Cloud school board member Bruce Mohs said to loud applause after he criticized both DFL and Republican lawmakers as inflexible.
To Democrats, he said, "we can no longer avoid the reality that we're going to have to make budget reductions."
To Republicans, he said, "We can no longer avoid the reality that we're going to have to make revenue investments with increasing tax increases."
To both parties, he asked: "Isn't it selfish to want it just one way, and not the other?"
Staff writer Bob Von Sternberg contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673 Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • Twitter: @rachelsb