Dayton sounds off on prison, PolyMet, MNsure and more

Gov. Mark Dayton spoke to reporters Wednesday about a variety of issues before the Legislature. Brian Bakst | MPR News

To the worry of his staff, Gov. Mark Dayton sometimes gets the itch to call a news conference without a preset agenda and take whatever pent-up questions are out there.

The free-ranging sessions, like one he held Wednesday morning, can offer clarity of his views toward items before the Legislature, illustrate his annoyance with a lawmaking process that often gets bogged down and share his introspection about shortcomings in his political relations.

Here are a few highlights from his 45-minute session, almost on the nose, before he heads out of town to mark Easter with his family:

Reopening a western Minnesota prison. In no uncertain terms, the governor said he would veto a bill with traction in the House to reopen a private prison in western Minnesota under some level of state control.

Dayton said he’s not comfortable with the push to resume sending inmates to the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton — at least not yet.

“I’m told they want $100 million to buy it. Then we have to rehab it and operate it. Hugely expensive. And I certainly don’t support this private corporation being authorized or leasing the facility to them or paying to have them to come back and do it with all the problems they brought before,” Dayton said.

PolyMet and Twin Metals mining projects. Dayton clarified his stance toward two significant mining projects that are pending for a jobs-seeking Iron Range.

He penned a commentary for the Mesabi Daily News distinguishing between the PolyMet Mining proposal near Hoyt Lakes and a separate Twin Metals venture that would seeks to extract precious metals deposits closer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Dayton drew some criticism on the Iron Range for declaring his objection to exploration leases for Twin Metals, but said he’s still neutral on the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine that has reached the permit application stage. “But I am saying that unlike Twin Metals I’m not going to block or thwart or delay that process,” he said.

MNsure hassles. The latest problem with MNsure also got some attention, namely tardy distribution of essential tax forms for thousands people who buy insurance through the health insurance exchange.

Republicans said Dayton and MNsure owe worried customers an apology or more for holding up their tax filing. Dayton, on the spot, endorsed a GOP suggestion that his Revenue commissioner seek preemptive extension from the IRS until everything gets ironed out.

But Dayton wasn’t hiding his own frustration with the three-year-old MNsure, which he helped launch. “I apologize to the people of Minnesota who have been affected by this. We’re past the point where MNsure is a startup. … I believe this snag should have been anticipated.”

Transgender bathroom bill. Dayton vented about a GOP-sponsored bill restricting bathroom use for transgender people to ones matching their biologically defined sex at birth, saying he is appalled by their “pandering to their extreme base. They’re wrong on the issue and wrong on the morality of it.”

He also took after Republicans for not passing a standalone bill for Iron Range unemployment assistance.

Before departing and after his sharp critiques, Dayton lamented recurring problems working with Republicans — on the unemployment issue and more.

“Politics trumps personality or personal relations in almost every instance I can remember. That’s why we’re all here,” he said. “I absolutely reject any implication that it’s something I could do or something I have done to cause this impasse.”