By Don Davis
Gov. Mark Dayton focused much of his State of the State speech Wednesday night on greater Minnesota, from HitchDoc in southern Minnesota’s Jackson to the Kelliher schools in the north.
He used areas outside the Twin Cities to tout the state’s economic growth, but also to illustrate what he sees as the need for more state spending.
“This economic growth is happening all over our state,” the Democratic governor said.
Republicans called the 48-minute speech the opening of Dayton’s re-election campaign. Republican-leaning rural Minnesota is expected to be an election battleground for Dayton and state House Democrats.
The governor spoke highly of spending programs he championed since he became governor in 2011, proposals that mostly passed last year when fellow Democrats gained House and Senate control.
Coming less than three weeks before the legislative session must end, Dayton made few pleas for this year, although he asked legislators to increase their agreed-to public works spending.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, praised Dayton’s request for more public works spending, but Republican leaders say they will not budge from the $850 million they agreed to spend. The four legislative leaders agreed on $1 billion over two years, but Dayton said Wednesday that he wants $1.2 billion.
Dayton said a larger-than-planned public works finance bill can do things like build the Lewis and Clark water system in southwestern Minnesota. Such projects, he said, would mean “jobs now and jobs in the future.”
The region, served by Republican legislators, needs $71 million to complete the pipeline to Luverne and Worthington. If that money does not come, “that region’s growth in population, business and jobs will suffer,” Dayton said.
The governor said the $850 million cap on public works funding probably would not finish Lewis and Clark.
Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, was happy that Dayton promoted the water project. However, Schomacker said, a lesser amount would at least get the pipeline into Luverne, whose mayor sat in the gallery to hear Dayton’s speech.
Dayton said the Statewide Health Improvement Program has helped Frazee and Fergus Falls in west-central Minnesota adopt policies “making it easier for residents to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines.”
In northern Minnesota’s Kelliher, he added, the program “has brought healthier food to the public schools with more fresh fruits and vegetables and more local foods.” Added state money has allowed Kelliher schools to break even after being up to $40,000 in debt a year ago, he said.
The state needs to invest in more jobs programs, Dayton said, highlighting southwest Minnesota’s need for people to fill jobs that go empty.
HitchDoc, a Jackson company, grew from a dozen workers to 140, Dayton said, but needs another 30. They are not available, the governor said company owner Brad Mohns told him.
Dayton said Minnesota is better prepared than most states to take part in the global economy: “from our farmers, who have made Minnesota the fourth-largest agriculture exporting state in the nation, to our Iron Range mining companies, who have merged new technology with tried and true methods.”
The governor said state government has helped business. “Some people believe there is no role for government in private sector expansion and job creation. To see that they’re mistaken, just look around Minnesota.”
Dayton’s State of the State speech was the latest on record. He delayed the address because a hip injury and surgery earlier in the year curtailed his movement.
Instead of making a grand entry down the center aisle of the House chamber, where governors traditionally shake hands with lawmakers in both parties, Dayton avoided the long walk by entering via a back door.
Dayton is seeking a second four-year term, but his hip problem has kept him off the campaign trail.
Dayton said he wants his Education Department to find ways to reduce the number of state-required tests in Minnesota schools.
“Last year, I’m very sorry to say, our state went backwards,” Dayton said. “More tests were mandated in the upper grade levels. I’m told some tests are required by state statute. Others are necessary to satisfy federal requirements. Still others are added by local school districts. They may make sense individually; but added all together, they do not.”