What Can We Expect From Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson?

What Can We Expect From Mark Dayton and Jeff Johnson?

To: Minnesota Voters State of Minnesota

Dear Fellow Citizens:

Last month we discussed voting for United States senator, but voting for the governor of Minnesota is a totally different deal. Governors live and move among us—it sometimes seems like you can’t get away from them. That was certainly true during the four years that we endured Jesse Ventura, best characterized as he was by Garrison Keillor as our “Technicolor bozo.” Governors of any stripe also affect us in our day-to-day lives in a way that senators manifestly do not. Let’s discuss the two candidates, Gov. Mark Dayton and his challenger, GOP candidate Jeff Johnson.

The last four years have seen the State of Minnesota make impressive progress. We have taken a projected $6 billion deficit in the biennial budget and seen it turn into a projected $1.2 billion surplus. Our state unemployment rate is the third-lowest in the nation and our Twin Cities unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation. Job creation, particularly in manufacturing, is the highest it’s been in many years. Driving around the metropolitan area, one can’t help but be impressed with the physical signs of vitality. A new light-rail line connects the two cities. Both TCF Bank Stadium and Target Field have settled well into their urban settings, to be joined by the new Vikings stadium taking shape on an almost-daily basis. The Medical Destination Center dream of the Mayo Clinic is starting to take shape in Rochester, and new development is taking place around the Mall of America in Bloomington. Housing has come back, foreclosures are down and banks appear to be stuffed with cash.

What’s not to like?

Well, for one thing, some of that mentioned surplus was the result of tax increases. For another, we have an education gap in our public schools, which is both racial and persistent. We have seen changes in our health care delivery system that have not gone smoothly, and there is a growing concern that much of our public spending has been wasteful or at least suboptimal. These are among the exact reasons we have elections—so that an informed debate can occur and voters can make informed choices. Mark Dayton has surprised some people with his steady and consistent governing style. He has not surprised people with his rich-people-not-paying-their-fair-share mantra. But he has balanced the books, eliminated most of the usual budgetary tricks, established universal access to free all-day kindergarten and paid back the money the state previously “borrowed” from K-12. He also has been the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time, as the economy started to expand rather than contract.

Enter Jeff Johnson, current Hennepin County commissioner and former state legislator. We know less about what he would do in office because he is not the incumbent. Close observers of the Hennepin County Board tell me that Johnson is a consistent vote against increasing costs, expenses or the size of government. If necessary, he will be the lone “no” vote on issues that he believes make government larger. In addition, he generally favors accountability in political sub-units, and wants to see budgets raised and spent by elected entities, rather than appointed ones. This consistent ideological record in favor of low taxes and small government allowed him to win a heavily contested Republican primary in August.

We should force candidates Dayton and Johnson to address the important challenges that our state faces for the next four years. At a minimum, we need to hear how these contrasting politicians would deal with improving the quality of public education in this state, both K-12 and higher education. We need to know in dollars and cents how much each would propose for K-12 public education, charter schools (if any), the University of Minnesota and MnSCU. Money alone should not answer our inquiry; we need to hear detailed plans for how to hold these various recipients of taxpayer largesse accountable. How do we make sure the money we spend on K-12 will be more effectively spent in the future? And how do we hold the University of Minnesota accountable for its budget?

Transportation planning and funding is another priority challenge facing this state. Only once in the past 26 years has our Legislature actually raised the gas tax, and that required a gubernatorial veto override. Where are the governor and Commissioner Johnson on this issue? A bipartisan blue-ribbon state transportation advisory panel recently reported an annual gap of $1 billion between the revenue the state currently expects and the money necessary over the next 20 years to maintain the current performance of our roads, transit, rails and airports.

Finally, like many of us who invest in companies, we as voters want to know something about the management team. We have a pretty good idea of the people that Gov. Dayton will appoint based on his past four years. We also know something of his lieutenant governor candidate Tina Smith, who for the last three years has been the chief of staff for the governor. But what duties will the governor delegate to Smith if he is reelected?

By the same token, Commissioner Johnson, who lacks an appointive track record, should tell us what duties will be assumed by his lieutenant governor candidate, Rep. Bill Kuisle. And in a situation where a candidate lacks executive experience, it is not unreasonable for many of us to request the types of people by background who will be appointed.

We need to stress the appointment power of the next governor. Knowing the appointees, or at least their probable backgrounds, would go a long ways to assuage the fears of those who are concerned that Gov. Dayton will appoint left-wing zealots or Commissioner Johnson will appoint Tea Party activists to positions of responsibility.

We don’t need zealots or activists. What we do need is a clear and reasoned debate about meeting this state’s challenges during the next four years.


Vance K. Opperman
For a Good Four Years

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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