Gov. Dayton’s State of the State Address strikes a pleasing tone

Republicans encouraged by tone, discouraged by some elements

T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in his State of the State Address on Wednesday evening (Feb. 15) depicted the sun as peeking through the clouds for the state of Minnesota.

“We’re doing something right,” Dayton said, citing the state’s declining unemployment rate and other economic barometers showing an economy on the rebound.

Dayton in his speech voiced a sentiment heard from Democrats and Republican alike — one of job creation. “They must be our Number One priority,” he said of helping 168,000 unemployed Minnesotans.

In terms of remedies, Dayton urged the Republican legislature to immediately pass a bonding bill — he has proposed a $775 million bill — and also urged lawmakers to pass Vikings’ stadium legislation this session.

“I’m amazed that some people feel no urgency to put several thousand more Minnesotan back to work,” Dayton said of building a new stadium.

Dayton heralded his “Jobs Now” tax credit, one aimed at getting jobs for unemployed military veterans and people just entering the workforce.

Of the 3,000 Minnesota National Guardsman currently serving in Kuwait, almost a quarter will be unemployed when they return to Minnesota, Dayton said.

Dayton’s State of the State, delivered short days since he vetoed a series of Republican high-profile lawsuit reform bills, short days since the Republican Senate fired his appointed Public Utilities Commissioner chairwoman and the governor called them unfit to lead, took pains to point to past areas of cooperation.

“One area in which the Legislature and my administration have worked well together is government reform,” Dayton said.

Dayton highlighted bipartisan efforts on streamlining the state permitting process and mentioned last session’s “significant” progress in education, citing the alternative teacher licensure legislation as an example of reform.

Still, Dayton lamented state budget cuts to higher education.

“Their curricula and classrooms must be world-class and state-of-the-art,” Dayton said of the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Colleges and State Universities.

In a speech largely devoid of sharp partisan tones, Dayton reminded lawmakers of the borrowing the state has done at the expense of K-12 education — some $1.5 billion in funding shifts — and said the borrowing put the state’s current $876 million budget surplus into perspective.

Had his tax-the-wealthy proposal been accepted, Dayton said, not only would the current two-year budget cycle been balanced without borrowing but the budget forecast for the next cycle would show a surplus.

“In fairness, I acknowledge that many of you in the legislature wanted to balance the budget by reducing spending,” he said pleasantly.

November’s election will show which pathway voters would have preferred, he explained.

“No more borrowing (this session),” Dayton said. Some House Republicans at their desks murmured when hearing this line, “What does he think bonding is?”

The governor’s reference to the election was one part of the speech that drew some criticism from Republican leaders.

In terms of new initiatives, Dayton warned that the century-old State Capitol building was in dire need of repair.

“I am asking you legislators to make the most unselfish vote of your careers; to kick yourselves, me, and everyone else out of the Capitol, as needed, for the four years necessary to renovate this building, and to make it functional and safe for the next 100 years,” he said.

Dayton closed his speech with a gentle plea for cooperation.

“Minnesota is a remarkable state,” he said. “Both DFL and Republican governors and legislatures have contributed to that success. Let us, please, build upon what has been done before us, not tear it down. I stand ready to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle to enact laws that will better Minnesota.”

But Dayton drew a light line in the sand.

“I am not interested in highly partisan, extreme measures, which are intended for campaign literature rather than law,” he said.

Some area Republicans were generally pleased with the governor’s words.

“The speech was much improved from last year. Last year it had more of a negative tone,” said House Tax Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston.

Davids said he takes careful notes during State of the State Addresses, listing mentioned issues into “Positive” and “Negative” columns.

“And most of the issues were in the ‘Positive Column,’” Davids said, showing a legal notebook with an unevenly written page.

“I think he set the tone for the session here,” he said.

House Health and Human Services Finance Committee Chairman Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, gave the speech a good grade.

“I think he put his finger on what he needed to say,” Abeler said.

“‘I’m willing to work with people willing to work with me,’” he said.

“And I think that’s a tough argument to go against,” Abeler said.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, was less taken with the State of the State Address. She style the speech as containing “a predictable message, nothing new or surprising at all.”

Republicans are willing to work with the governor, though the legislature has the right to pursue its ideas, Kiffmeyer said. “I think we’ll have a lot of (gubernatorial) vetoes,” she said, smiling.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, spoke favorably of Dayton’s speech.

It had “a good tone,” Senjem said. “We weren’t called incompetent to govern, or anything like that,” he said.

Zellers, who sat impassively behind the governor during nearly all of the address, complimented Dayton on mentioning things that Republicans and he had collaborated on.

But the Republicans also indicated they were not in lockstep with the governor on a number of issues.

On the issue of the Vikings’ stadium, Zellers said it was “hard to say” what the future of the legislation might be, because there were still so many unknowns.

Senjem said the stadium initiative needed someone who could the piece things together — and that’s the governor.

“He’s (Dayton) positioned to tie the knots on some of these things,” Senjem said.

Senate Republicans are willing to advance a bonding bill, Senjem said, but indicated it wouldn’t be by the end of the month.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the governor had put the ball in the legislature’s court.

“Governor Dayton delivered a clear and hopeful message tonight about our call to leave this state better than we found it,” Thissen said in a statement.

“I am confident we can answer this call if we focus on the bread and butter issues important to Minnesotans– creating jobs, strengthening our education system, and improving our economy for middle class Minnesotans,” he said.