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Capitol Chatter: Dayton fields variety of questions

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton makes a point during a Tuesday, Oct.17, 2017, news conference in St. Paul in which he answered questions of a variety of topics. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Don Davis of Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL — Political reporters love it when a high-level politician stands in front of them fielding questions on all sorts of topics.

Washington reporters got a ton of stories when President Donald Trump did that in the Rose Garden a few days ago. Minnesota reporters had the same opportunity the next day when Gov. Mark Dayton started a "press availability" by briefly talking about health care and the state's attempt to lure the second Amazon headquarters, then took questions on a wide variety of topics for 40 minutes.

Some governors tend to hold news conferences about single topics and take few, if any, questions about anything else. A few almost never meet the press. Others are open to nearly any topic.

Dayton sometimes holds an availability just because he has not talked to reporters for a while and knows they have questions.

So let's run down some of the topics Dayton tackled:

• While the Democratic governor said he is confident federal officials will stay true to their promise of sending millions of dollars to help keep down individual health insurance policy premiums, "anything can change at any 3 a.m.," a reference to Trump's early-morning tweets.

• Asked about Minnesota's quiet approach to attracting a second Amazon headquarters and his comments about the effort, which he called "very professional," Dayton responded with "I can repeat them with more enthusiasm if you would like." His following remarks were delivered in the same level voice he used earlier.

• Dayton cited a "confidentiality agreement" as the reason he refused to release Minnesota's proposal to Amazon. However, in the ensuing days other states seeking the headquarters released their bids.

• He was tough on Republicans, a trait that has become more pronounced over his tenure that has been filled with battles with the GOP. "Nothing in the Republican majorities surprises me..." he said about a committee vote to reject a negotiated state employee contract. "They are just anti-union."

• The governor disputed that the rollout of MNLARS — a new state computer system for driver's license, identification card and vehicle registration and ownership transactions — has been rocky, despite news reports from around the state about customers facing long waits or have not been able to get service. "I would dispute 'rocky,'" he said. "It has not been perfect."

• It should be no surprise to anyone that Dayton said his priority for the next legislative session, his last, will be expanding early childhood education. The benefit from that, he said, "is just undeniable; you just hear it over and over again."

• With the Republican-controlled Legislature admitting it may be able to stretch its money into the next session, which begins Feb. 20, Dayton conceded that he may have lost leverage with lawmakers. He vetoed the Legislature's budget so he could bring lawmakers back to the negotiating table to pass a budget and redo some tax legislation he just had signed. There would be no incentive for Republicans to talk about changing laws they support.

Winter help available

Many Minnesotans have kicked on their furnaces to make sure they work before the real cold weather sets in, but those who cannot afford paying for heat may be able to get some help.

The state's cold weather rule prohibits utilities from shutting off heat during winter months and the Energy Assistance Program helps eligible Minnesota homeowners and renters pay for home heating costs.

To prevent heat shutoffs, customers must contact their utilities and make monthly payments.

Energy assistance is available from the Commerce Department. People who think they may qualify may call (800) 657-3710. The department also has some money available to help winterize homes.

Dayton: No 'easy stuff'

Dayton has his share of difficult issues with 14 months left in office, but he said he is not giving up.

"I did not sign up for the easy stuff," he said, rattling off issues ranging from deciding whether a new type of mine should be allowed in the northeast to how to settle a flood protection dispute in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

"If it is easy, it does not get to me," the second-term governor said.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.