ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Mark Dayton, who became Minnesota’s first Democratic governor in two decades Monday, pressed Republican lawmakers to avoid “paralyzing gridlock” as they jointly confront a monumental budget challenge with starkly different ideas for tackling it.
Dayton used his inaugural address to demand that he and his governing peers “summon our best, to be our best and to do our best.”
“The stakes now are high,” Dayton told the hundreds of people who filled the Landmark Center auditorium in downtown St. Paul. “This coming decade will determine whether we suffer the historical declines of previous superpowers, or write a new chapter for future historians. If anyone can do it, we can and we must.”
To Minnesotans at large, he issued a call to volunteer service. To opponents of his campaign pledge to raise income taxes on the wealthy, Dayton said it is incumbent on them to fashion an alternative that doesn’t shift the burden to locally imposed property taxes.
“If you can do so without destroying our schools, hospitals and public safety, please send me your bill so I can sign it immediately,” Dayton said. “Otherwise, let’s begin tomorrow, and in May conclude this challenging, complicated and essential process by working together.”
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On Tuesday, Republicans will grab control of both legislative chambers for the first time since 1971.
Dayton’s swearing-in broke what had become the third-longest Democratic drought for a governorship in any state.
Connecticut, which like Minnesota had gone without a Democrat in the role since 1991, also elected one in November. The states with longer Democratic outages are South Dakota and Utah.
Dayton survived a close election that required a recount to become the state’s 40th governor. Democrats now hold all of Minnesota’s state and federal statewide office — the first GOP shutout since 1978.
The inaugural drew the elite of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, including the state’s only living former Democratic governor, Wendell Anderson; former Vice President Walter Mondale, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken; Reps. Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Tim Walz; state lawmakers, former officeholders and a clutch of union leaders.
The mood was celebratory after so many years without a Democrat in the governor’s office.
“It restores my faith in the power of prayer,” Anderson said. “I’m very happy about it.”
Departing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty watched from the second row, sitting near Anderson and former Gov. Al Quie, a Republican. Pawlenty didn’t seek a third term and has instead been positioning himself for a possible run for president.
Dayton was set to move into the governor’s office in a corner of the state Capitol after taking the oath. Phones, e-mail addresses and the website for his administration went live at noon.
Dayton assumed power about a dozen years after first seeking the top job in an unsuccessful bid. The Democrat has been an established figure in Minnesota politics for more than three decades, serving previously as an economic development commissioner, state auditor and, most recently, a U.S. senator.
At 63, he will be Minnesota’s oldest rookie governor.
Dayton started his big day by handing out milk and fruit juice to students at an elementary school who were returning from their winter break. He said he wanted to demonstrate his call for volunteerism.
In his speech, he urged businesses to adopt a school and help improve it. He said all people should volunteer somewhere part of one day each month as he intends to do while governor.
“A better Minnesota for all of us depends on all of us,” Dayton said.
He takes over a state projected to run a $6.2 billion budget deficit during his first two years. Dayton ran on pro-tax platform, but Republicans steering the Legislature say they won’t approve state tax hikes.
Despite their deep philosophical differences, Dayton has stayed upbeat about being able to work together. He spent his abbreviated transition period — GOP nominee Tom Emmer didn’t concede until Dec. 8 — meeting with Republicans on their turf.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, deferred to Dayton on his first day, saying that the new GOP majorities would wait for his budget proposal and an updated economic forecast in late February before presenting their own budget plan.
Koch added, however, that she is confident the state’s financial troubles can be solved without raising taxes.
“We’re committed to living within our means,” she said. “We believe absolutely we can do that.”
Aside from the budget problems, Dayton inherits a decade-old debate over a new home for the Minnesota Vikings. But unlike past governors, Dayton won’t be able to wait it out. The team’s Metrodome lease expires after next season, raising fears the 50-year-old franchise could relocate. Last month, the Dome’s inflatable roof collapsed under the weight of snow, forcing the Vikings to play home games in Detroit and at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium.
Dayton has had a hard time escaping questions about the team’s situation.
It even came up while he served breakfast at Wellstone Elementary. Most kids breezed by Dayton with a simple smile or hello, but one boy used his brief time with the new leader to lobby for his beloved football team.
“How about the Vikings getting a new stadium?” the youngster told Dayton.
“That’s one vote for a new stadium,” Dayton said to no one in particular.
Dayton has said he hopes to strike a stadium deal but hasn’t said what type of financing package he’d accept.
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WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler Reports
WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler Reports