By Don Davis and Andrew Tellijohn
Minnesota Gov. Mark Daytonâ€™s first State of the State speech centered on cooperation.
He asked Republicans who control the Legislature to work with him in solving the stateâ€™s $6.2 billion budget deficit.
Democrat Dayton said that he is concerned that a Republican committee already has discussed a government shutdown, something that could happen is he and legislative leaders cannot agree on a budget solution. He said a shutdown should never happen.
â€œCompromise doesnâ€™t mean we have to agree, thank goodness, because we wonâ€™t,â€ Dayton said in a tough speech in which he gave no ground on his priorities. â€œIt doesnâ€™t mean we canâ€™t debate, because we will. It means we can disagree, debate and then reach a shared solution to our stateâ€™s problems.â€
Dayton asked the Minnesotans to accept a new higher tax rate on the richest in the state, to be part of a budget he proposes on Tuesday. He said that he still wants to increase school funding, including providing money for all-day kindergarten statewide.
â€œTo progress, we have to invest,â€ he said.
Legislative reaction to Daytonâ€™s 42-minute speech was mixed. There was universal agreement with Daytonâ€™s emphasis on balancing the budget and on creating jobs. There remains strong disagreement on how to get there, mostly from Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature.
The Democratic governor said that the stateâ€™s economy took a turn for the worst under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Jesse Ventura of the Independence Party.
â€œLast December, there were over 77,000 more Minnesotans unemployed than in December 2002, just before Gov. Pawlenty took office,â€ Dayton said.
â€œAnd it is worth noting that this decade of poor economic performance followed two consecutive cuts in the state income tax rates by Gov. Ventura and that Minnesota Legislature in 1999 and 2000,â€ he added
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, complained that Dayton spent too much time looking backward, when looking toward the future is needed. He also did not like Daytonâ€™s reliance on more government.
â€œOur faith does not lie in a new government program, or for that matter an old government program,â€ Zellers said.
Overall, Zellers added: â€œIt was a little shy on details and he was making some promises that he will not have the money to keep.â€
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, liked what he heard.
â€œIt is remarkable how he reached out to Minnesotans who are of better means,â€ he said about Daytonâ€™s call for higher taxes on the rich. â€œHe said â€˜please.â€™â€
Lower taxes have hurt education, Dayton said, reminding 201 legislators sitting in the House chamber that education is his top priority.
During Pawlentyâ€™s term, education spending fell 14 percent, when inflation is factored in, the governor said. Ten school districts have gone to four-day weeks to save money.
Much of the speech concentrated on education, but he discussed other issues, too.
Dayton said the most important thing state leaders can do is to help businesses â€œbelieve in Minnesota, to invest in our state, and to create more jobs for the thousands of our citizens who want to work.â€
He pledged to go anywhere in the world to recruit new business.
At the same time, he promised to make state government more efficient.
â€œWe need transform how we provide our citizens with the best public services, most efficiently, at the lowest cost,â€ he said, giving no specifics.
â€œThis is a clear but daunting challenge: How do we improve government services and performance while we also cut costs?â€ Dayton said.
Dayton said students, parents, teachers and drivers all want a better Minnesota.
Improvements will take more investment, he said. In politics, â€œinvestmentâ€ often translates into higher taxes.
He called for more transportation funding. State transportation investments are inadequate, he said, and â€œfurther deterioration will seriously constrict our future economic growth and damage our social vitality.â€
Dayton assigned Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel to give legislators his ideas about how to improve transportation, but also asked them to create a finance authority to further look into the funding issue.
The governor thanked troops, especially a Hastings family in the House gallery: 1st Sgt. Gary Wenzel, his wife Cathy, and their 18-year-old son, PFC Todd Wenzel.
â€œ1st Sgt. Wenzel has been deployed twice,â€ Dayton said. â€œDuring his 18-month tour in Iraq in 2004-05, Cathy Wenzel founded â€˜Project Backpack,â€™ for military sons and daughters; and another organization, â€˜Minnesota Veteran Family Support,â€™ providing families with services before, during, and after military deployment.
â€œToday, the Wenzelâ€™s oldest son, Andrew, is on his way to Afghanistan; and Todd will be deploying with the 1st Brigade Combat Team later this spring.â€
Legislators and others at the speech gave the Wenzel family an extended standing ovation.
Dayton also pointed out five education leaders in the audience, including Efe Agbamu,Â Cottage Grove Park High Schoolâ€™s principal, who is the stateâ€™s secondary principal of the year.
â€œShe is recognized for her â€˜ability to achieve academic and community goals, for improving teaching and learning and encouraging a positive school environment for staff and students,â€™â€ Dayton said.
Daytonâ€™s call for shared sacrifice solving the budget deficit was welcome to Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. He said rural Minnesota has paid the price in recent years through higher property taxes and tuition fees and lower funding for services from the state.
â€œThatâ€™s probably one of the biggest messages coming out of it was the shared pain,â€ Eken said of Daytonâ€™s request that those who have done the best and benefited the most from tax breaks in recent years also shoulder a share of the budget burdens to come.
Eken also appreciated Daytonâ€™s efforts to quash discussion of special sessions and government shutdowns.
â€œI donâ€™t that is helpful at this point,â€ Eken said. â€œWe should be focusing on trying to solve the problem in the time that is allotted.â€
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said he thought Dayton was correct in pointing out that this yearâ€™s $6.2 billion budget shortfall is symptomatic of an ongoing trend. Reinert thought Dayton did a good job of discussing cuts while also leaving the possibility of additional revenue in play.
â€œWe need to get our arms around a solution for the budget,â€ he said.
Reinert also appreciated Daytonâ€™s message about making the government work. It canâ€™t all be about cuts, he added. â€œMost Minnesotans know the government does some pretty good things that they like,â€ Reinert said.
Reps. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake and Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls, both Republicans, were happy to hear that jobs are a priority for Dayton. However, both also were struck by what they felt were contradictory tones in Daytonâ€™s speech. Dayton would ask for bipartisan support and praise lawmakers for working together on issues such as reducing permitting times but he would then criticize the previous administration for creating the budget issues.
Westrom said it seemed as though Dayton had forgotten that Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate for much of the time Pawlenty was in office. Nornes said he was surprised at how much Dayton talked about spending while not drawing much of a road map for solving the deficit.
Some Republicans found positives in what Dayton had to say. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, was pleasantly surprised to hear of Daytonâ€™s desire for transportation infrastructure investments.
McNamara added that if the Legislature does a bonding bill he hopes it centers around transportation infrastructure.
â€œIf we can move the transportation sector forward and get more people working I think it will make a big difference,â€ McNamara said. â€œItâ€™s one I support.â€
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, thought Dayton accurately portrayed the seriousness of the deficit situation. And he found some room for discussion with Daytonâ€™s focus on phasing in all-day kindergarten and on early childhood education.
â€œThe Legislature looks forward to working with him on those initiatives,â€ Garofalo said. â€œDepending on how those are designed those are minimal costs. Those are items I am not opposed to.â€
Not everyone left the speech satisfied. Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick, R-Deer River, said she agreed that the Legislature needs to focus on growing the economy and creating jobs. But she disagreed with Daytonâ€™s call for a $1 billion bonding bill.
â€œWe donâ€™t have the money to cover the promises weâ€™ve made,â€ she said. â€œInstead of addressing that first and foremost weâ€™re now looking at borrowing more money. Itâ€™s essentially overextending on a credit card. Itâ€™s the peopleâ€™s credit card. We believe itâ€™s the wrong way to go.â€
Freshman Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said Dayton spoke eloquently about the issues he supports but didnâ€™t address a lot of issues of interest to southwest Minnesota residents, such as nursing home care.
He also felt Dayton didnâ€™t give enough attention to agriculture, which has performed well despite the economic downturn, Schomacker said.
â€œHe talked about the projects he wants to focus on and that he likes, but there is plenty more out there that wasnâ€™t covered that I thought should have been.â€
Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, thought Dayton delivered his talk well, although he said the state probably has more issues than the governor addressed. Langseth was happy Dayton took a soft approach to addressing the Legislature but realistic about the amount of work the it has in front of it in the months ahead.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a long ways as far as getting the thing straightened out and there is going to be a lot of pain,â€ Langseth said. â€œUnder the circumstances it was a feel good speech, but itâ€™s not going to feel very good in the months ahead.â€
Others appreciated Daytonâ€™s optimism in believing lawmakers could work together to solve the stateâ€™s problems. Bakk said Daytonâ€™s speech would strike a chord with Minnesotans who want Republicans and Democrats to compromise in finding solutions to the stateâ€™s problems.
â€œI believe Mark Dayton in his heart really believes he is going to turn the decline around,â€ Bakk said. â€œI stand ready to help him.â€
Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, enjoyed Daytonâ€™s emphasis on investing for long-term benefits into the future. Infrastructure investments, Koenen said, will provide long-term benefits to the state while putting people to work in the short-term,
Koenen also agreed with Daytonâ€™s emphasis on investing in the stateâ€™s people through health care and education. â€œI really liked his forward looking and his planning for the future,â€ he said.
Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, welcomed Daytonâ€™s message of bringing Minnesotans together around the issue of restoring the stateâ€™s education, jobs and health care.
â€œHeâ€™s right on as far as a message for Minnesota,â€ Persell said.
Persell said he had no problem with Daytonâ€™s call for a tax increase among the stateâ€™s highest earners. He said his district has generally been supportive of the concept.
Persell emphasized that lawmakers from both sides must keep an open mind about all ideas. â€œWeâ€™re all trying to rech out across whatever aisles there are to communicate,â€ he said.