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News analysis: Dayton faces political, fiscal reality of times

Gov.-elect Mark Dayton ponders a question during a Thursday news conference with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Dayton takes office Jan. 3. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Mark Dayton made one promise, in particular, hundreds of times in two years campaigning to become Minnesota governor.

It seldom differed much from what he said last January: "I promise that I will increase state funding for K-12 public education in real dollars every year I'm governor. No exceptions, no excuses."

That was then, this is now: "I will do my utmost."

What changed from "no exceptions, no excuses" to doing his "utmost?" Political and fiscal reality.

The Democrat had been governor-elect only a couple of hours when he began to back away from campaign rhetoric. No one doubts that he wants to add money every year, but now that he is a bit more than three weeks from becoming governor his rhetoric is superseded by new facts.

Dayton faces two new major hurdles before he can reach his education funding and other goals: a $6.2 billion state budget deficit and Republicans who control the state Legislature. He knew all along there would be a massive deficit, but on the campaign trail it is unlikely his worst nightmare included facing a Legislature dominated by Republicans. They won control in what could be the state's biggest political surprise since Jesse Ventura was elected governor in 1998.

A month to the day after the Nov. 2 election that put Dayton and a Republican legislative majority in office, state finance officials announced that the budget deficit grew from an earlier-projected $5.8 billion to $6.2 billion. But while adding $400 million to the deficit may be bad news, for Dayton GOP legislative control may be a tougher hurdle.

On Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Republican Tom Emmer conceded the governor race following a statewide recount, the newly minted governor-elect promised to continue his efforts to make Minnesota taxes more "progressive." In simple terms, he continues to want to tax the rich, a mantra that anyone even remotely following the governor's race heard often.

Republicans such as incoming House Majority Leader Matt Dean of Dellwood will have none of that, saying they are united in opposing any tax increase.

"I urge Gov.-elect Dayton to re-examine his priorities and begin with a responsible budget that lives within government's means," Dean said.

Even before the election, the state Revenue Department said that Dayton's preferred income and property tax increases for Minnesota's richest citizens would not generate as much revenue as he wanted.

That revelation forced Dayton to backtrack on a promise to repay school districts more than $1 billion in delayed state payments. He never produced a new revenue proposal to fund his plan to expand the two-year state budget to about $38 billion, about $5 billion more than Republicans want.

He must write a budget plan by early February.

It is not just school funding that Dayton must reconsider, although throughout the campaign he put that first.

"I will expand government spending on essential services," Dayton said in response to a candidate questionnaire.

During a September campaign swing through rural Minnesota, Dayton told Forum Communications that he can compromise with Republicans.

The day he become governor-elect, he sounded conciliatory while at the same time he stood up for his "tax the rich" principles.

"I was elected to serve all of Minnesota, to the very best of my ability," he said, "and I promise that I will do so."

Now, and especially after the Legislature returns to session on Jan. 4, the main Minnesota political spectator sport will be watching how Dayton and Republicans can fulfill their conflicting promises.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.