- Associated Press - Sunday, January 1, 2017

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - After 40 years in public office, Gov. Mark Dayton is ready to close out his career with a final challenge.

In the twilight of a political career that brought him from being state auditor all the way to the U.S. Senate and finally the governor’s office, the Democrat’s final two years in office will test both his legacy and his mettle as he grapples with a Republican-controlled Legislature and the unpredictability of what may come from a Donald Trump White House. But Dayton is still plotting an ambitious agenda, including an expansion of his new state preschool program and a continued push for a gas tax increase to fund road and bridge repair.

“I’ve got two more good years left in me, the good Lord willing, to do the best I can for Minnesota,” Dayton told The Associated Press in an interview this week. “I don’t intend to fade quietly into the dusk.”

The 69-year-old governor said his health is back on track after several hip and back surgeries throughout his time in office and a health scare this spring - a brief hospitalization he chalked up to dehydration.

Dayton had hoped for a different outcome in the November election, calling on Minnesota voters to return full control of the Legislature to Democrats. Instead, Republicans swept back into power, bolstering a House majority and seizing a one-seat majority in the Senate. They have promised to use their majorities as a check against Dayton as they set out to pass a new two-year budget with a $1.4 billion budget surplus in hand.

It’s a repeat of 2011, when Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature deadlocked, bringing state government to a 20-day shutdown. Whether 2017 goes the same way may hinge on the governor’s relationship with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who called it “damaged” after the pair publicly clashed over how to address rising health insurance premiums earlier this month.

Dayton said he’s ready to move past that, and hopes legislative leaders follow through on a promise to approve financial help for shoppers on the individual market in the session’s first week.

“I don’t carry things around,” Dayton said. “I may remember them, but I don’t carry them around.”

Speaking with The AP just days before Tuesday’s scheduled start of session, Dayton was short on specifics for his own agenda.

He’ll propose a “modest expansion” to include more schools in the preschool program created in 2016, which puts up early education funds in needy districts without existing options. He’ll also unveil a package of public construction projects in the session’s first week, but wouldn’t say whether it would be larger or smaller than the $1 billion bill lawmakers left unfinished in 2016. And in the years-long debate over how to fund long-term road and bridge repairs, he said he’ll stick largely to his plan to raise gasoline taxes, which faces fierce GOP resistance.

With uncertainty at the federal level over how Trump and a Republican Congress will proceed with health care reform and tax issues, Dayton is content to wait and see rather than act prematurely with state law.

“I’m going to proceed as though what is on the books in Washington is what we’re dealing with, until that changes,” the governor said.

But passing the next two-year budget will proceed. Dayton’s own vision will come in late January while lawmakers will wait until after a February budget update to start assembling their own. Dayton said he wants to keep the budget stable. That may limit Republican hopes for massive tax cuts or plans to redirect much of the budget surplus into transportation repairs.

The memory of the 2011 budget impasse and shutdown looms large for Dayton. But now that he’s free from electoral pressures in the final half of his last term, the governor made clear he won’t relent as he did that year, when he eventually agreed to massive budget cuts.

“I’ll go to the 50-yard line,” he said. “And then I’ll wait.”

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