Dayton faces and diffuses protest on second day on job
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton diffused a tense situation at his first official function Wednesday by sharing his microphone with shouting protesters crowded into his office.
Dozens of people opposed to the state getting more deeply involved in the federal Medicaid program jammed into the governor's reception room alongside legislators, reporters and photographers in a scene Capitol observers say they never have witnessed before. Usually, governors restrict ceremonies to supporters and the media, but Dayton, in his second full day in office, opened up the room to all who fit in.
"It is the people's room," Dayton said. "This is where democracy occurs."
Before Dayton walked in from his private office, state troopers tried to ban signs from the room and a trooper took one away from 86-year-old Fremont Gruss of Deephaven, who refused to voluntarily give up the sign that linked federally funded health care to socialism. Gruss vigorously argued to keep the sign, saying he had every right to carry it in the public place.
While protests are not unique in the state Capitol, how Dayton handled this one probably was. He asked three protesters, who included Tea Party members opposed to expanding government, to rebut things he and other supporters said about the need to expand Medicaid, known in Minnesota as Medical Assistance. The health insurance program serves low-income families with children, seniors and people with disabilities.
Dayton's invitation somewhat quieted the protesters, some of whom later thanked him for sharing the microphone.
Democrat Dayton signed an executive order, his first since taking office at 12:34 p.m. Monday, to get Minnesota involved in the expanded Medical Assistance program.
Nearly 100,000 more poor Minnesotans will receive government-funded health care under the program and Dayton said 20,000 health-care jobs will be saved.
A change legislators and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty made last year forced 17 hospitals outside of the Twin Cities area to stop serving many poor residents. Dayton said the order he signed will allow rural hospitals to resume that service.
Pawlenty administration officials said the state will need nine months to get the new Medical Assistance active. But Dayton said he would order his new human services commissioner, not yet appointed, to make speeding up the process a top priority.
Republican Pawlenty opposed the program, saying it would cost the state. Democrats support it because more people will be served.
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the new program should be a fiscal break-even proposition for Minnesota.
"Because Gov. Dayton signed this executive order today, thousands of people in northern Minnesota can now see a primary care doctor and a dentist, and be treated for mental health issues," Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said Wednesday.
Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, the lead House health and human services lawmaker, said he is concerned that the federal government could pull the funds once the program begins.
"As we speak, the federal government owes Minnesota a half-billion dollars in special education funding, costs now borne by school districts and property tax increases," Abeler said, adding the same could happen in Medical Assistance.
One of the three people Dayton asked to respond, Jack McMillian of Annandale, said the U.S. Constitution does not allow the government to be involved in health care.
"I'm thinking to myself, where's the church?" he said, because churches and other nonprofit organizations should provide health care to the poor.
McMillian said that if the federal government provides health care, it creates "a crippling effect" on government that eventually destroys the system. "The answer is not funding a bigger government."
Gruss, after his sign was removed, said his family has a long history in the military and federal health care rubs him the wrong way. "I'm for freedom and liberty," Gruss said after arguing with the trooper.
As a baby's cry nearly drowned out already-loud boos and cheers, Dayton began the ceremony with: "This is an office where all points of view are honored and respected."
Veteran legislators in attendance were surprised with what was happening, from the signs to Dayton's efforts to calm the tension.
"I've never seen where a bunch of very noisy protesters were allowed to speak their piece," Huntley said.
After the ceremony, Dayton shook hands with supporters of the order he signed, then dived into the crowd of opponents, many of whom shook his hand with frowns on their faces. Others thanked him for letting their side speak.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.