Dayton Focuses On Education And Transportation, But Open To Other Ideas

Dayton

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to focus on education and transportation funding when the Minnesota Legislature opens next week, but said he welcomes anyone “to knock on the door” and offer suggestions for what else should be accomplished.

“I’m open to anything,” the 67-year-old Dayton told Forum News Service and St. Paul Pioneer Press reporters during a wide-ranging Tuesday interview.

The Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday for a nearly five-month session that is to center on approving a two-year state budget likely to top $40 billion.

Dayton has promised to increase education funding in each budget as long as he is in office, but said he does not yet know how more he will seek when he releases a budget proposal Jan. 27.

The education initiative Dayton has discussed the most is a tax cut he proposes for middle class families to help pay for child care.

One of Dayton’s major initiatives has been to improve early-childhood education. While Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, applauds Dayton’s moves in the area, he worries that facilities are not adequate to hold more young Minnesotans.

Dayton agreed that could be a problem, but said his all-day kindergarten plan has resulted in few space problems. For other early-childhood institutions, expanding facilities may be expensive, but existing funding sources need to be used, the Democratic governor said.

“That would be important to look at some state dollars in that area,” countered Marquart, who will be an assistant House minority leader.

In higher education, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Minnesota propose getting more state money to continue a tuition freeze.

“I am all for freezing tuitions,” Dayton said, but first state officials need to decide how much money needed to pay for freezes would come from the state and how much from the higher education systems being more efficient.

In the interview, Dayton did not commit to backing a tuition freeze. He said he plans to meet with leaders of the two systems soon.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said continued tuition freezes “would require a fair amount of new state dollars.” As House higher education chairman, however, Nornes said that he does not know where he would find the money.

“The spread between the state investment and student investment has been getting wider,” Nornes said about the decreasing percentage of state money going to higher education. “Narrowing that is a goal that I think all would agree on.”

Dayton’s transportation proposal likely will center on adding a sales tax on gasoline, estimated to produce $5.85 billion over 10 years. Unlike the 28.5-cent-a-gallon state tax already charged at the pumps, this one would be at the wholesale level. At today’s gasoline prices, the new tax could add 12 cents a gallon.

Everyone agrees transportation is a major issue, Dayton said, but “nobody wants to pay for it. … I just recognize the necessity of it.”

Besides the gas sales tax, Dayton said he probably will propose a small increase in car license fees. He also would double a sales tax from 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent in the Twin Cities to be spent on transit.

“We will see when we get down to the details if we can agree,” Dayton said.

House Republicans put a high priority on improving road and bridge funds.

Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said he hears a lot of support for a major transportation borrowing bill, as occurred during Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration. “I would prefer doing that instead of a gas tax.”

The governor said that while his plan will call for some borrowing for transportation, that will not be a major part of a proposal and that any plan must have a dependable funding source.

Many Democrats in the Senate majority appear open to a transportation tax increase.

While many Republicans oppose tax increases, some Republicans who control the House say they would consider a higher transportation tax. As Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said: “I have an open mind.”

Dayton said he has an open mind about other issues people want to bring up, suggesting they can “knock on the door” or “slip it through the mail slot” if they want to share any with him.

But whatever is suggested, he said that he hopes not to raise general taxes, with only those going to transportation programs getting a boost.