‘Compromise doesn’t mean we have to agree, thank goodness’

State of the State

By Don Davis and Andrew Tellijohn

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s first State of the State speech centered on cooperation.

He asked Republicans who control the Legislature to work with him in solving the state’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.

“Compromise doesn’t mean we have to agree, thank goodness, because we won’t,” Dayton said in a tough speech in which he gave no ground on his priorities. “It doesn’t mean we can’t debate, because we will. It means we can disagree, debate and then reach a shared solution to our state’s problems.”

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.

“To progress, we have to invest,” he said.

Legislative reaction to Dayton’s 42-minute speech was mixed. There was universal agreement with Dayton’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 state’s economy took a turn for the worst under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Jesse Ventura of the Independence Party.

“Last December, there were over 77,000 more Minnesotans unemployed than in December 2002, just before Gov. Pawlenty took office,” Dayton said.

“And 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,” 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 Dayton’s reliance on more government.

“Our faith does not lie in a new government program, or for that matter an old government program,” Zellers said.

Overall, Zellers added: “It was a little shy on details and he was making some promises that he will not have the money to keep.”

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, liked what he heard.

“It is remarkable how he reached out to Minnesotans who are of better means,” he said about Dayton’s call for higher taxes on the rich. “He said ‘please.’”

Lower taxes have hurt education, Dayton said, reminding 201 legislators sitting in the House chamber that education is his top priority.

During Pawlenty’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 “believe in Minnesota, to invest in our state, and to create more jobs for the thousands of our citizens who want to work.”

He pledged to go anywhere in the world to recruit new business.

At the same time, he promised to make state government more efficient.

“We need transform how we provide our citizens with the best public services, most efficiently, at the lowest cost,” he said, giving no specifics.

“This is a clear but daunting challenge: How do we improve government services and performance while we also cut costs?” Dayton said.

Dayton said students, parents, teachers and drivers all want a better Minnesota.

Improvements will take more investment, he said. In politics, “investment” often translates into higher taxes.

He called for more transportation funding. State transportation investments are inadequate, he said, and “further deterioration will seriously constrict our future economic growth and damage our social vitality.”

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.

“1st Sgt. Wenzel has been deployed twice,” Dayton said. “During his 18-month tour in Iraq in 2004-05, Cathy Wenzel founded ‘Project Backpack,’ for military sons and daughters; and another organization, ‘Minnesota Veteran Family Support,’ providing families with services before, during, and after military deployment.

“Today, the Wenzel’s oldest son, Andrew, is on his way to Afghanistan; and Todd will be deploying with the 1st Brigade Combat Team later this spring.”

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,  Cottage Grove Park High School’s principal, who is the state’s secondary principal of the year.

“She is recognized for her ‘ability to achieve academic and community goals, for improving teaching and learning and encouraging a positive school environment for staff and students,’” Dayton said.

Dayton’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.

“That’s probably one of the biggest messages coming out of it was the shared pain,” Eken said of Dayton’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 Dayton’s efforts to quash discussion of special sessions and government shutdowns.

“I don’t that is helpful at this point,” Eken said. “We should be focusing on trying to solve the problem in the time that is allotted.”

Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said he thought Dayton was correct in pointing out that this year’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.

“We need to get our arms around a solution for the budget,” he said.

Reinert also appreciated Dayton’s message about making the government work. It can’t all be about cuts, he added. “Most Minnesotans know the government does some pretty good things that they like,” 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 Dayton’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 Dayton’s desire for transportation infrastructure investments.

McNamara added that if the Legislature does a bonding bill he hopes it centers around transportation infrastructure.

“If we can move the transportation sector forward and get more people working I think it will make a big difference,” McNamara said. “It’s one I support.”

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, thought Dayton accurately portrayed the seriousness of the deficit situation. And he found some room for discussion with Dayton’s focus on phasing in all-day kindergarten and on early childhood education.

“The Legislature looks forward to working with him on those initiatives,” Garofalo said. “Depending on how those are designed those are minimal costs. Those are items I am not opposed to.”

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 Dayton’s call for a $1 billion bonding bill.

“We don’t have the money to cover the promises we’ve made,” she said. “Instead of addressing that first and foremost we’re now looking at borrowing more money. It’s essentially overextending on a credit card. It’s the people’s credit card. We believe it’s the wrong way to go.”

Freshman Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said Dayton spoke eloquently about the issues he supports but didn’t address a lot of issues of interest to southwest Minnesota residents, such as nursing home care.

He also felt Dayton didn’t give enough attention to agriculture, which has performed well despite the economic downturn, Schomacker said.

“He talked about the projects he wants to focus on and that he likes, but there is plenty more out there that wasn’t covered that I thought should have been.”

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.

“We’ve got a long ways as far as getting the thing straightened out and there is going to be a lot of pain,” Langseth said. “Under the circumstances it was a feel good speech, but it’s not going to feel very good in the months ahead.”

Others appreciated Dayton’s optimism in believing lawmakers could work together to solve the state’s problems. Bakk said Dayton’s speech would strike a chord with Minnesotans who want Republicans and Democrats to compromise in finding solutions to the state’s problems.

“I believe Mark Dayton in his heart really believes he is going to turn the decline around,” Bakk said. “I stand ready to help him.”

Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, enjoyed Dayton’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 Dayton’s emphasis on investing in the state’s people through health care and education. “I really liked his forward looking and his planning for the future,” he said.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, welcomed Dayton’s message of bringing Minnesotans together around the issue of restoring the state’s education, jobs and health care.

“He’s right on as far as a message for Minnesota,” Persell said.

Persell said he had no problem with Dayton’s call for a tax increase among the state’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. “We’re all trying to rech out across whatever aisles there are to communicate,” he said.

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