End to race, start of battle

Published 11:36 am Friday, December 10, 2010

By all accounts, incoming Gov. Mark Dayton looked and sounded rather somber during his public appearances on Wednesday right after he learned that his opponent, Republican Tom Emmer, had conceded. And, well, the new governor ought to be somber, because he has a tough road ahead of him.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want the job, especially a Democrat who is going to have to wrestle (maybe even literally) with a Republican-dominated Legislature whose goals are almost the opposite of his own.

In the two-year budget period that begins July 1, Minnesota is expected to face a $6.2 billion deficit. Unlike the federal government, states have no choice but to balance their budgets, which means our state needs to figure out how to spend $3.1 billion per year less or tax that much more.

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Dayton has, in general terms, said he’d prefer the “tax more” strategy, focusing on pulling more revenue from wealthy Minnesotans. Republican legislators generally favor the “spend less” strategy and have already said that they won’t support the new governor’s tax plan.

There are real implications in this for Austin and Mower County, not only because of the services and taxes that come from or go to the state directly, but because of state lawmakers’ many tricks for pushing costs down to local governments — you’ll hear these referred to as “unfunded mandates” — which then have to be paid for from local taxes.

The state’s redistribution of property and income tax revenue to local governments is also a big, fat target for expense control and, if those payments are reduced it will also mean fewer services and higher taxes at the local level.

For the governor’s office, solving this whole budget process is going to take some compromise and some leadership. When the tables were turned and Democrats ran the Legislature while a Republican governor wielded a veto pen, compromise was not necessary. Gov. Pawlenty could simply veto spending he didn’t like.

But a governor who prefers to raise revenues rather than cut spending has it harder. His main tool, the veto, can block spending and tax laws, but it can’t create them. For Dayton there’s the added risk that compromising with the hard-core conservatives in the Legislature will anger his own party.

How well will the governor manage that balancing act? It remains to be seen. When Dayton visited the Herald before November’s election, he was reluctant to talk about details of how he would manage a budget deficit, deflecting the question by saying that plans would depend on what the new state revenue forecast showed. That new forecast came out last week and it was rather grim.

In general, Dayton’s comments at the Herald back in October were typical politician-speak: No firm answers, lots of deflected questions.

Perhaps the new governor does, indeed, have some solid plans and some solid answers now. It was not reassuring that the key job for any incoming — or established — governor, that of chief of staff, hadn’t been filled as of the middle of this week. Given that Dayton’s eventual victory was inevitable despite the recount process, it would have been nice to know that the governor’s staff and plans are taking shape a little more quickly.

Perhaps the vagueness we have seen so far are not going to be hallmarks of Dayton’s early tenure in office. Minnesotans should certainly hope so. Whichever side of the political aisle one is on, there’s a need for strong and effective leadership during these difficult times.