Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton stuck to his tried-and-true themes during his Thursday night State of the State speech, but rural lawmakers said they felt he showed a willingness to ease a controversial proposal to require 50-foot buffer strips around all water.
The governor chided Republicans for wanting to cut taxes instead of spending more for state programs and plugged his desire to increase early-childhood education, boost transportation funding and a list of other priorities that he often has promoted.
He took advantage of a later-than-usual State of the State address to attempt to sway opinions of the 201 legislators, each with his or her own priorities.
He urged lawmakers to be bold.
“During the remaining six weeks of this legislative session, we will face our own moments of truth: Will we do what is easy, safe and popular or will we risk our political lives to preserve this great state for future generations?” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, echoed other lawmakers when he said that there were no surprises in the speech other than an apparent willingness by Dayton to back away from requiring 50-foot vegetation buffer zones around water. Dayton had blamed agriculture for water pollution, but Thursday night he said that more than one industry is at fault.
Dayton said he “is unwilling to wait another year, or longer, for legislation that will significantly improve Minnesota’s water.”
He did not mention his 50-foot requirement, which rural lawmakers took as a sign that he is willing to compromise.
Dayton said that when asked about his priorities this legislation session, he says “everything.” But he said his plan to plan to provide education for 4-year-olds is at the top of his list. Next, he said, is improving funding for transportation projects.
Dayton was critical of Republicans, who propose a transportation funding package less aggressive than the Democratic governor, who wants to add a new gasoline tax. The GOP plan to partially fund transportation by taking money from other programs “will inevitably pit those needs against educating our children, caring properly for our elderly, enhancing our natural resources, fulfilling the important promises of the Working Parents Act and providing quality, affordable health care for all our citizens,” Dayton said. “People should not be pitted against projects. Both are too important.”
Another sharp disagreement between Dayton and Republicans is whether to borrow money for public works projects, such as repairing state buildings and entering construction projects. Republicans say that can wait until next year.
“How can we tell the citizens and businesses in Worthington to ‘just wait another year’ for a reliable supply of safe drinking water?” Dayton asked. “Or tell people in Willmar to ‘wait another year’ before rerouting rail cars with volatile fuels away from their city. Or St. Cloud area residents to ‘wait another year’ for public safety improvements to the nearby correctional facility?”
Among those in the House gallery watching Dayton’s speech was Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, one of five Minnesotans House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, invited because, he said, they represent Democratic priorities that Republicans reject.
Democrats have called for increased rail safety, and Dayton would borrow money to build a safe Moorhead railroad crossing. The governor has made improving the safety of oil trains a major issue.
Major railroad crossing improvements — which also would go to Prairie Island Indian Community, Willmar and Coon Rapids — are in a public works funding bill Dayton proposes but Republicans say is not needed this year.
Republicans also oppose increasing a railroad assessment that Dayton and other Democrats want.
Greater Minnesotans watching the speech paid most attention to what he said about buffers.
Atwater farmer Frans Rosenquist sat with Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and said what many did after the speech: “One size does not fit all.”
Dayton challenged opponents of his buffer plan to come up with something that would work.
“Everyone professes to want clean water,” Dayton said. “Too many, however, don’t want to do what’s necessary to get it.”
If the state requires buffers, Rosenquist asked, “how much are you going to pay me for that?”
He said buffers would take land out of crop production and he has paid up to $10,000 an acre for farmland.
Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, was happy that Dayton said southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system needs to be funded. “That is absolutely a necessity.”
Dayton barely touched on elder and disabled care. House Republicans made increasing long-term care funding one of their top priorities.
“My heart just breaks over the message Gov. Dayton sent to the elderly and disabled,” Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said.
Democrats, on the other hand, were happy with what they heard.
Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said he especially liked Dayton’s call to use the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus “to move the state forward.”
“There were no surprises,” added Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, who said that the governor was careful not to upset Republicans who soon will be negotiating spending and other issues with him.
“He was very firm and strong … but he didn’t back himself into a corner,” said Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley.
“The governor is right,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth. “With a $1.9 billion budget surplus, the time to invest in our future is now. We may never have another opportunity like this to invest in our students, and to throw that away on corporate tax giveaways as GOP leaders have proposed would be a mistake.”
Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said she was happy the governor emphasized freezing tuition at state-run colleges.
Dayton’s speech was his fifth State of the State as governor and the first in this second term, which he says will be his last four years in office.