Gov. Mark Dayton isn’t on the ballot this year, but it’s clear that his policies are becoming key to legislative elections.
The first-term governor has been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks campaigning for Democratic candidates for the Minnesota House and Senate.
“Usually candidates say ‘This is the most important election in our lifetime’ when their names are on the ballot,” Dayton said recently at a rally in St. Cloud. “My name isn’t on the ballot, and I say this is the most important election in our lifetime.”
Dayton has been characterizing the GOP-controlled Legislature as extremists who are unwilling to compromise. He points to the state government shutdown in 2011 as one of several problems he’s had with the Legislature.
“They really believe ‘eliminate government, eliminate taxes and let businesses run free and we’ll all live happily ever after,’” Dayton said. “It doesn’t happen in fairy tales and it doesn’t happen in this world either.”
Dayton’s policy goals may depend on whether Democrats win back control of the Legislature. Republicans have criticized his plan to raise taxes on Minnesota’s top earners to help fix the state’s structural budget problem. They have also called for spending cuts and tax cuts for businesses – things he mostly disagrees with.
And with another two-year projected budget deficit looming, Dayton’s vision for government and his re-election in 2014, could depend on whether he has a supportive Legislature.
“People need to decide, are they willing to give DFLers a chance for two years to see if we can make the kind of progress that will make a difference in their lives?” Dayton said. “If we don’t, then there’s a remedy for that in 2014, but at least give us that chance.”
Republicans are working hard to make sure Dayton doesn’t get his wish. They’re also trying to use Dayton and his policies to their political advantage this election year. Republicans are warning voters and business leaders of what could happen if the governor gets his wish of a DFL-controlled Legislature.
“Hopefully, the voters will put Republicans back in charge. If they don’t, they better hang onto their wallets,” said Rep Greg Davids, R-Preston. “Just hand your billfold over because they’re going to come and get it anyway.”
Davids, who chairs the House Taxes Committee, and others are pushing Dayton to release his tax reform plan before Election Day. Dayton has convened a task force to study ways to change and improve the state’s tax code, but he won’t release the plan until after Nov. 6. Davids said voters deserve to know the plan now so they can ask DFL candidates whether they support it.
“Let’s have the debate before the election,” Davids said. “Why wait?”
In some races, Republicans are trying to get their DFL opponents to say whether they support Dayton’s tax plan.
Dayton says he doesn’t want to release his plan because he doesn’t want it to “get mired down in politics” because Republicans would “doom it before it even gets started.” He stresses, however, that he’ll continue to push for a tax increase on Minnesota’s wealthiest 2 percent and that his plan would keep property taxes stable.
Most DFL candidates interviewed by MPR News say they support some sort of tax increase but aren’t willing to say whether they’d support Dayton’s plan to raise income taxes on Minnesota’s top earners.
“He’s on the right track and he just needs a Legislature that will work with him,” said DFL candidate Anne Nolan, who is challenging Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R- St. Cloud.
The stakes for this year’s election are huge.
Republicans currently hold a four seat majority in the Minnesota Senate and a six seat majority in the Minnesota House. Update: Democrats need to pick up four seats in the Minnesota Senate and six seats in the House to win the majority. Every seat is on the ballot this year and officials with both political parties say they see a solid path to the majority.
And while Republicans are warning about tax hikes if the DFL wins the Legislature, Dayton is promising an end to the partisanship in St. Paul. It’s a message that he and other DFL candidates stress repeatedly on the campaign trail. They include Kevin Dahle, a Minnesota Senate candidate looking to represent the Northfield area.
“People are sick of the gridlock,” Dahle said at a recent campaign rally. “Let’s try to work together. People are tired of the partisanship and the bickering.”
Republicans dismiss complaints about partisan rancor. They say divided government isn’t always pretty, but that it results in a good product in the end.
“In talking to a lot of voters, they like the fact that we balanced the budget working with him,” GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers said. “I think the voters knew what they were doing two years ago when they sent us mixed government.”
It isn’t clear whether Minnesotans will head to the polls on Tuesday with thoughts about whether Dayton should have a DFL-controlled Legislature. Most legislative races focus on where the specific candidates stand on the top issues facing the state. But that isn’t stopping Dayton from making his pitch.
“I always tell candidates that I’ll do whatever helps the most,” Dayton is fond of saying. “I’ll campaign for them or campaign against them. Whatever does the most good.”
MPR’s Conrad Wilson contributed to this story.