Gov. Mark Dayton's quest as he sees it, as he enters his final 18 months in office, is the same as it's been for more than six years: to stabilize Minnesota's finances and prevent a return to the massive deficits he inherited when he took the state's top political job.

But now, locked in an unprecedented court battle with the Legislature, the DFL governor finds he has a lot of explaining to do. He's trying to convince Republican legislators that they should reconsider a host of tax cuts he believes are a threat to the state's future financial health. He's trying to persuade a judge that he had the authority to line-item veto the Legislature's funding in order to force the issue. And he's trying to assure Minnesotans that he created this mess in order to keep the state out of a much bigger one in the future.

"Everyone's focused on the [court] case like it's a chess board," Dayton said in an interview last week. "And I would like to be much more focused on the issues, have public attention focused on the issues: Why did I do this?"

The main issue, according to Dayton, is that the $46 billion, two-year budget the Legislature passed and Dayton signed in May jeopardizes Minnesota's recent track record of building up funding reserves and bucking national trends by producing surpluses rather than deficits. While Republican legislative leaders contend that the state's strong position demonstrates a need to cut taxes and share the wealth, the governor fears for a less bountiful future.

Dayton said he's worried about what would happen if a national economic downturn is paired with federal policy shifts that force states to carry a bigger burden for health care and other costs. That could easily erode the state's $1.9 billion in rainy-day funds — and Dayton's fiscal legacy in the process. He intends to make the issue front and center in next year's legislative session, his last as governor.

"In any kind of moderate to serious economic downturn, $2 billion goes quickly," Dayton said. "So I'm going to really challenge the Legislature next session to do what is necessary to put our fiscal house back in order."

Making his case

First, there's the lawsuit — and plenty of other items on a packed agenda.

Dayton is the first Minnesota governor to strike funding for the state House and Senate, a maneuver he said he was forced into when GOP legislative leaders linked the governor's signature on the tax bill to funding for the state Department of Revenue. He pushed back by signing all the budget bills and the tax bill, but vetoing legislative funding.

That put the Legislature in a bind: Without a new budget, hundreds of legislators and staff members faced going without a paycheck. GOP leaders were unwilling to meet Dayton on his terms — coming back to the table to talk about tax cuts and other policy issues — so they sued, arguing that the governor had violated the constitutional separation of powers by effectively putting them out of business.

Now, as a Ramsey County judge weighs each side's arguments, Dayton is continuing to make his case to the public. He's been traveling the state trying to explain the complicated tale of how two branches of state government ended up in court.

And while Dayton acknowledges that there's some relief in stepping away from another cycle of elections and political posturing, he's well aware that he needs the support of legislators from both parties to accomplish his goals between now and the end of 2018.

That includes key leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, who said he shares Dayton's goal of long-term fiscal stability but disagrees with his outlook on the state's next budget.

"I don't think we should be worried about where we're headed at all, while knowing that we have to adjust to whatever happens at the federal level and in the economy," Gazelka said. "Those are unpredictable no matter who is in charge and are things we can't control."

Longtime Sen. Dick Cohen of St. Paul, the senior DFLer on the Senate Finance Committee, agrees with Dayton's concern about the possibility of choppy waters for Minnesota's state treasury. But he's not sure DFLers will be able to do much about it if Dayton loses in court.

"I don't know how you get into a legislative discussion about how to deal with a budget that's already in law," Cohen said.

Confronting divisions

Meanwhile, Dayton is delving deeper into another range of issues he considers critical to the state's future: racial disparities, police-community relations and broader divisions that erupted again after a jury recently found a St. Anthony police officer not guilty in the shooting death of Philando Castile.

In the days and weeks since the verdict, the governor has met several times with groups of black leaders. He said those conversations, along with recent talks he has had with Latino residents concerned about immigration policies and American Indian tribal members troubled by a growing opioid epidemic, have pushed long-standing challenges to the front of his agenda.

Dayton said he intends to produce specific actions on the issues raised in those meetings "in fairly short order," though he was not yet ready to announce details. "People don't want you to just have a one-time meeting and walk away from this," he said.

There's also the shadow of the 2018 election, with the pool of candidates seeking to succeed Dayton swelling. He said that he'd stay out of the action for some time but that he plans to support whichever DFL candidate wins the party's endorsement next year.

For now, he said he's focused on what he'll leave behind for whoever steps into the job in January 2019. Dayton is conscious of the limited time he has to make a difference, and of how much he needs Minnesotans' backing to finish out his time in office on his own terms.

"Your effectiveness in government is very much a function of your public standing, public support," Dayton said. "If you squander that, you're irrelevant — no matter how much time you have left in office."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790