by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton urged lawmakers to abandon empty jargon and failed ideologies and strive for a vigorous governance of hard work, fresh ideas and sincerity.
“It is time to prove that Minnesota’s leaders are capable of more than ideological skirmishes and political stalemates, which offend our state’s citizens and jeopardize our state’s future,” Dayton said in his third State of the State Address, delivered Wednesday (Feb. 6) before a joint session of the Legislature.
“You are here. I am here,” Dayton said.
“So, let us begin,” he said.
Dayton made his appeal for renewal at a time when Democrats, while praising the governor for boldness, sit quietly in committee rooms while Republicans attack the governor’s proposed state budget as a study in excess.
Though Democrats rose to their feet to applaud Dayton numerous times, on one Dayton proposal — the idea for an “Unsession” to trim back overgrown state laws and policies, an idea Republicans seem to like — the applause from the two sides of the divided chamber was about the same.
While Dayton depicted Minnesota as generally on the upswing — he humorously chided Wisconsin for lagging behind in job growth The governor also urged the lawmakers to confront fundamental decisions that can’t be left to fester.
The two alternatives, Dayton argued, were his budget proposal, or something close to it, and doing nothing.
A third alternative, a better alternative, might be crafted.
“No one would be happier than me to see a good Plan C,” said Dayton, expressing a willingness to listen.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, had hoped Dayton would abandon his sales tax expansion proposal.
“I was hoping he would back off. But he’s pushing forward,” Gazelka said.
Dayton did not disown any of his proposed state budget, describing the rationale behind the blueprint.
“We have repaired much of the fiscal damage we inherited, but we’re not done yet,” Dayton said.
The governor painted his proposed budget, which raises taxes on the wealthy, as a remedy for the “miserable deficit-to-deficit (budget) cycle” gripping the state.
Rather than promote prosperity, Dayton argued that tax cuts historically have proven to usher in economic distress.
Yes, his proposals are controversial, Dayton noted.
“The genius of our system of governance is that no one gets to have it all her or his way,” Dayton said.
“Starting with the governor,” he said.
Dayton encouraged legislators to look ahead, beyond the disputes of the moment.
For himself, Dayton wants a state offering the best jobs, the best lives for families, the best environment for businesses to provide those jobs.
“Those who measure ‘business climate’ only by tax rankings will question my strategy, although many surveys rate Minnesota lower in overall taxes than most are led to believe,” Dayton said.
In the area of education, Dayton, saying studies show the highest incidences of juvenile delinquency and teenage pregnancy occur during weekday hours after school, proposed an “Adopt an After-School Program.”
He looks to business to rallying in support.
In terms of higher education funding, Dayton argued the state had virtually turned its back on its own universities and colleges.
He spent time, Dayton said, going over budget documents and directing state budget officials to dig back into the paper bookkeeping era to determine the trajectory of state higher education funding.
It was found that the last time the state actually spent less to support higher education, in real dollars, was 30 years ago, Dayton explained.
“No wonder the most recent comparison of the 50 states by their expenditures for higher education per $1,000 of personal income ranked Minnesota only 32nd,” Dayton said.
Dayton proposes to increase higher education funding by $240 million, though saying the infusion doesn’t solve the deeper problem.
One proposal that had a Democrat saying she was proud that Dayton had spoken of it beneath the portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the House Chamber was a call by the governor for same-sex marriage.
“I believe that every Minnesotan should have the freedom to marry legally the person she or he loves, whether of the same or other sex,” Dayton said.
“I want Minnesota to be a state, which affirms that freedom for one means freedom for everyone, and where no one is told it is illegal to marry the person you love,” he said.
Dayton spoke of the need to address the issue of climate change, challenging legislators to use past successes as “springboards for Minnesota’s next big leap toward a sustainable energy future.”
Narrowing in on his budget, Dayton styled it as reducing projected state spending while increasing investment in jobs and education while making gains in improving the efficiency of state government.
“And I raise revenues responsibly for the first time in many years, while also making our tax structure fairer for hard-working, middle-income Minnesotans,” he said.
State leaders in past decades had cut funding for many services, and recent surveys confirm the state is spending less — 33rd among the states in total expenditures for K-12 education per $1,000 of personal income, Dayton said.
“Are we better off today after all those reductions in public services?” he asked.
“I say, ‘No.’ Trying to cut our way to a Better Minnesota is a failed experiment,” Dayton said.
In detailing his “Unsession” idea, Dayton proposed the second year of the two-year legislative session, other than for passing a bonding bill or dealing with emergency items, be devoted to eliminating redundant or excessive laws, rules, procedures.
“I suggest making next year’s legislative session the first ‘Unsession,’” Dayton said.
At close of session in May, Dayton will direct his staff to begin drawing up lists of possible items for consideration during the unsession.
“If he could actually do that, that would be a remarkable session,” Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, gave a shrugging approval to the idea.
One thing lawmakers could do, Hann suggested, was “undo” the tax increases likely to come this session.
Dayton urged legislator to tackle the big issues left at their doorstep.
“We can choose, as others in our positions have before us, to ignore these growing problems, avoid fixing them, and hope they don’t crash down upon us, while we’re in office,” he said.
Or, we can lead,” Dayton said.
“That is what the people of Minnesota elected us to do,” he said.
While the U nsession idea tickled Republicans, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, who carefully listens and charts State of the State addresses, blasted Dayton’s latest effort as hopelessly partisan.
“It was Gov. Divisive at his worst,” Davids said.
It was the most disappointing, partisan State of State Address he’s heard in 21 years, he said.
“It’s such a wasted opportunity,” Davids said.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, thought Dayton was greedily taking credit for the betterment in the state’s economy.
“Yet he doesn’t give us, the Legislature, the people who sent him the bills, any credit. He doesn’t seem to want to share,” Kiffmeyer said.
Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she disagreed “massively” with the idea the speech was partisan.
Hortman was pleased the governor spoke of energy issues and found his speech consistent with the his budget.
“And I am proud to be resident of Minnesota with a governor who is for equal rights,” she said of Dayton’s support for same-sex marriage.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, thought Dayton is his speech challenged lawmakers to make tough decisions.
He was challenging them to lead and make a better Minnesota, he said.
“And I agree,” Hansen said.
Dayton spoke for about 43 minutes in his third State of the State Address..
T.W. Budig can be reached at [email protected]