Gov. Mark Dayton, born of a legendary business family, made the case for a strengthening state economy at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Business Partnership on Tuesday night.
Dayton, thanks partly to pushing for higher taxes on top-earning Minnesotans and proposing other sorts of business-related taxes, isn’t exactly the favorite son of Big Business.
Regardless, the partnership’s annual gala, held at the Minneapolis Convention Center, is a congenial event where sometimes-warring politicos and business folks bury the hatchet over dinner and drinks.
The governor pointed to construction cranes, company expansions and state transportation investments that he said will accelerate the postrecession recovery.
“Thousands of business owners and executives … and employees have stepped forward to retune the state’s engine, and get it running well again,” said the governor. “Businesses have located and expanded throughout our state. Were they thrilled with every aspect of our business climate? Probably not. But they had enough confidence to be successful … and make new investments.”
Dayton said those investments, expansions and a productive workforce have resulted in 162,000 more jobs in Minnesota since he took office in 2011.
After the address, the governor got a respectful round of applause from 1,000 attendees from Minnesota’s 100 largest companies, and others from the business, lobbying and political ranks. The guests included Dayton’s Republican opponent for governor, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. He has accused Dayton of wasting taxpayer dollars.
Dayton praised Best Buy Co. Inc., one of many companies he has visited recently, for recycling 1 billion pounds of electronic waste.
“It’s another example of a Business Partnership company supporting … the kind of leadership we need to overcome the challenges that lay before us,” Dayton said.
If Dayton and the DFL-majority Legislature survive the November election, the governor said they likely will increase transportation funding to expand road-and-bridge repairs that move workers and goods.
Dayton is respected but not beloved by many in business.
“The relationship has been mixed,” said Charlie Weaver, the former Republican legislator and public safety commissioner who has run MBP since 2003. “He’s respected as governor, as a person of character and principle. He has a clear agenda. We’ve found common ground and worked together on some things. But he wouldn’t win a straw poll among our members against [former Republican] Gov. Tim Pawlenty.”
Business generally didn’t like Dayton’s tax increases on the highest-earning 2 percent. Or the size of the education spending hikes that Dayton and the DFL consider prudent investments in future workers to replace the huge wave of retiring baby boomers. Some view that as more dollars thrown at union educators and a system that isn’t improving quantifiable school performance.
The partnership also recognized with a video and $20,000 check a Columbia Heights elementary school with a high concentration of poor and minority kids. Principal Willie Fort, a former Minneapolis public schools administrator, tore up the traditional playbook to get impressive increases in student results since 2010.
MBP openly criticizes the performance of the Minneapolis schools, which have struggled for years with low test scores and graduation rates among minority kids. The district boasts a high concentration of poverty. And MBP opposes what it considers the relaxation of learning-and-testing standards by Dayton’s education department.
It also announced a multiyear partnership of support and expanded financing for Hiawatha Academies, Harvest Network and other charter schools where performance has risen. “Increasing access to these schools so they can serve more students is the most effective way to turn the tide in Minneapolis,” said Pat Ryan, CEO of Ryan Companies and chairman of the MBP’s education committee.
But on this night, at least for awhile, the serious differences gave way to a humorous video starring the self-effacing Weaver, a few other executives and politicians. And good spirits and informal banter.
“Our executives get to know more about public officials and policy,” Weaver said of the evening. “And then when something comes up for General Mills or Cargill, we can call up [DFL Sen. Majority Leader] Tom Bakk and say, ‘This is going to hurt us, or this is good.’ ”
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144