The state of the state? Today’s speech and the Republican response show Minnesota still divided

Gov. Mark Dayton today offered his five-point Minnesota "prosperity plan."
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Gov. Mark Dayton today offered his five-point Minnesota “prosperity plan.”

In the wake of Gov. Mark Dayton’s State of the State address, the $6.2 billion question remains: Where are Minnesota’s government and economy headed, and how will they get there?

Those were, of course, the overarching sparring points of last fall’s election campaign, and Minnesota’s voters, in their wisdom, chose to split the baby, elevating DFLer Dayton to the Capitol’s corner office and the Republicans to control of the Legislature.

Such bipolarity led to the inevitable today, 14 weeks after Election Day and 15 weeks before the statutory end of the legislative session on May 23.

As the legislative dance picks up its tempo, the serious, meticulous governor gave no ground on his principles: tax the wealthiest, invest in schools and roads, don’t trash teachers or state employees, and get people back to work.

He spoke of  a “Five-Point Plan for Future Prosperity,” but with few specifics. He said the state should invest in more jobs, better education, improved transportation, the health of “our citizens, our communities, and our environment,” and in transforming government services.

 “Please — help us restore Minnesota to greatness,” he urged the joint “convention” of the House and Senate. “Move Minnesota ahead once again.”

He also sent a few not so-subtle zingers in the direction of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty: “I ask you to remember that I was not given a blank slate on which to write my best proposals for our state’s future.  Neither was the Legislature.  We were left a horrendous fiscal mess, a decade of economic decline, and state agencies poorly managed.”

GOP confused and opposed
In response, the GOP leadership, while polite, was miffed — and critical.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers: “You don’t make a state or organization stronger by looking backwards. You look forward.”

He said other Democratic governors in the nation are refusing to raise taxes.

“Raising taxes during tough economic times will do detriment to your state’s economy,” he said.

As for Dayton’s programs to “invest” — which means higher or new taxes or bonding — Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch said: “I would submit he is making promises that he does not have the dollars to support.”

Fair to say the 40-minute State of the State address did nothing to instantly change the state of state politics or of the two parties’ views on how to get out of the $6.2 billion hole that Dayton will more specifically confront when he unveils his budget next Tuesday.

He offered a “coming attraction” today. He will seek an income tax hike for the richest Minnesotans and hinted it could be a short-term solution.

“Some will criticize me for proposing next week to ask those successful businessmen and women and other wealthy Minnesotans to pay higher taxes,” he said. “I ask them for their forbearance during this fiscal crisis, which I did not create, but inherited, and now, with you in the Legislature, must solve.

“I ask Minnesota’s business leaders and other most successful citizens to give us two years to turn this Ship of State around. Not by savaging essential public services, upon which you and your employees also depend, but rather by transforming the ways in which government operates here in Minnesota. 

“And, with your help, to reduce the need for those services by putting people back to work throughout our state.

“My Father’s favorite quote was from The Bible. “To whomsoever much has been given, of him shall much be required.” 

Said Zellers afterward: “When you take away all the fancy words … it’s tax and spend. It’s more government spending by raising taxes. … That’s not where we are at.”

This standoff on the budget can only get dicier as the clock ticks towards May 23, the constitutionally mandated final day of the legislative session.

The scene today
As is his custom, Dayton was punctual, his first State of the State speech actually beginning a few seconds before noon.

Minutes earlier, the 67 senators marched into the 134-member House chamber, Speaker Kurt Zellers called “the joint convention” to order, the State Supreme Court in their black robes then wandered in, followed by all the constitutional officers, such as Attorney General Lori Swanson and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, followed further by former Govs. Wendell Anderson and Al Quie. (Gov. Arne Carlson and Pawlenty weren’t there.)

The assembled sat and stood, sat and stood, as each level of government was introduced, and then Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon and finally Dayton himself, escorted by a few Dudley Do-Right-like state troopers.

The scene for Minnesota’s version of a State of the Union address was complete with guests and soldiers and teachers of the year and parents and the cabinet in the second-deck balcony, being honored, waving, smiling.

But amid that pomp, there was an embarrassing circumstance for Chief House Sergeant at Arms Troy Olsen.

“The chair recognizes the Sergeant at Arms,” Zellers pronounced from the front of the ornate chamber.

Olsen, standing before a microphone in the middle aisle leading to the House dais, perhaps 100 feet from the House speaker, yelled – like a ring announcer at a boxing match — “I‘d be honored to announce the arrival of the Honorable Mark Ritchie [emphasis ours], governor of … “

Wrong Mark. Oops. Yikes. Cough.

Secretary of State Ritchie was already in the chamber, of course. Olsen, red-faced, stepped away from the mic as those in the chamber snickered and laughed and applauded in support.

Zellers, quick on his feet, ordered a redo.

“The Chair recognizes the Sergeant of Arms,” he said, rewinding the historical tape.

This time, Olsen got it right – “Mark DAYTON” – and that was the end of the laughter for the afternoon.

Familiar themes, shutdown omen
The governor’s speech was deliberate, serious and direct.

Behind him was a pensive portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Above him was a fresco of American Indians and Minnesota pioneers, with the words “The Trail of The Pioneer Bore The Footprints of Liberty.”

Higher above that work of art were the words, “VOX POPULORUM EST VOX DEI.”

In these sober surroundings, Dayton outlined his values: more spending for education, all-day kindergarten, jobs for the construction trades, “investments” in infrastructure.

He offered a hand of cooperation on business regulation and government reform.

But in the opening minutes of the speech, he stared down the GOP on the notion that a lack of consensus could lead to a state government shutdown:

“Whether we unite or whether we divide is hanging in the balance. The challenges we face threaten to divide us, rather than bring us together.  Partisan posturing and narrow agendas threaten to overwhelm bi-partisan cooperation and compromise.

“I do see promising signs of bi-partisan accord … On the other hand, in just the second week of the legislative session, there was a hearing held on the effects of a shutdown of state government next July. A shutdown which would occur ONLY if we fail to resolve our differences before adjournment 103 days from now … It is absolutely unthinkable that we would even contemplate doing so here in Minnesota. So, I ask you, legislators; I invite you; I implore you — to join with me now, right here in our Capitol and pledge to the people of Minnesota that we will NOT shut down their government, our government — not next July 1st, not any July 1st, not any day ever.”

It earned him his first applause of the speech from the left side of the room, but Republicans were slow to join the standing ovation, and others didn’t stand at all.

Afterward, Zellers and Koch expressed confusion about that segment of the speech. Koch said she and Dayton and Zellers are in constant communication these days.

“Never, ever has that ever been brought up in any conversation,” Koch said. “There’s been no discussion on that whatsoever. That struck me as odd.”

As for a pledge to not shut down govenrment, Koch said such an idea had not crossed her mind.

Zellers distanced himself from the Jan. 12 hearing at which a GOP-lead committee reviewed what happened during a 2005 government shutdown.

Dayton also evoked the good old days when the “Minnesota Miracle” made the cover of Time Magazine with then-Gov. Wendell Anderson holding a fish in a pristine setting for all the world to see our prosperity.

“Minnesota’s economic ascendancy and social vitality were true public-private partnerships, and they occurred by the thousands throughout our state,” he said of those 1973-era days. 

Countered Koch, 39, whose entire life saw the DFL control the Senate until she became the leader following the November elections: “There was a retro … vibe” to the speech.

“We will turn it around,” Dayton implored from the dais.

But how?

Still, there was almost unanimous agreement on one issue.

When Majority Leader Koch adjourned the joint gathering, she sought a voice vote. There was a hearty “Aye” from all … except for one lonely voice from the back of the DFL section, from Minneapolis Rep. Jeff Hayden.

“No,” he yelled with contrarian fervor.

“We’ve got everybody here, we can get it done right now,” he told reporters.

Very wishful thinking.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/09/2011 - 06:07 pm.

    “Tax and Spend” is what it is all about
    You can have what you want, if you just have no doubt

    So keep on donating, those DFL special interest dollars heaving,
    And you will find yourself perpetually receiving

  2. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 02/09/2011 - 09:26 pm.

    I think that we are witness to the possible birth of an iconic Minnesota leader for our time. We should not underestimate Mark Dayton. He could save our state from economic decline.

    Mark Dayton is a member of the rich, upper class. Most Republican politicians are lackey wana bees, who grovel for favor from the rich upper class. Mark has access to rich upper class leaders. Republican politicians do not have the same access and do not understand the rich upper class.

    Maybe, Mark will just bypass the Republican politicians and make policy with the Republican elite, the people with real money and power, who have a vested interest in seeing Minnesota being successful.

  3. Submitted by William Pappas on 02/10/2011 - 06:28 am.

    You’re kidding, right, Patrick. Republicans will always have access to the rich upperclass. In fact they don’t have the same access as Dayton, they have a money conduit access that extends to foreign overseas multinational corporations. The statement that republicans don’t have access to the rich is fantasmagorical. How frustrating that Minnesota got rid of the ideological zealot, Pawlenty, whoose approval ratings dropped into the toilet in his home state for his failure to honestly address long term structural budget problems,and yet installed the same ideological rigidity in the Minnesota Senate and Legislature. It is not possible now for the republican controlled legislatures to come up with practical solutions to the state deficit. They have fallen into the same fiscal trap as Pawlenty and cannot politically find adequate revenue. As wealth is continuing to be generated by corporations and the state’s richest citizens, the middle class strrggles to make ends meet and paradoxically is the target of republican regressive tax policy. That is a looser for the state’s economy. The one sector that is able to pay tax has been labeled hands off by republicans and actually is targeted for tax cuts. This simple dynamic will make a budgetary solution impossible and Dayton’s wish for a regeneration of the state’s former leadership in education, health care and business a pipe dream.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/10/2011 - 07:09 am.

    I was actually on the floor of the house for the speech, there among the less honored guests. That sort of thing is always a thrill for me, and I am still a bit buzzed by it.

    What I thought yesterday was that the governor made an honest speech, one that omit reference to the very large gorilla in the room. He did put some legislators on some spots but not in a way that was unfair, or inconsistent with their constitutional obligations.

    We have for way too long put off the making of some difficult choices. Failing to make them, hasn’t made those choices go away, it’s simply made the consequences of those even worse. It’s pretty clear to all of us that that policy of deferral and denial has now run it’s course. It’s now time to work together to do what’s best for Minnesota. Gov. Dayton’s speech yesterday provided a basis for a start.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/10/2011 - 09:32 am.

    I’m relieved to see a Democrat who doesn’t immediately abandon his agenda for the sake of “compromise”. I have a feeling the Republicans are finally in for a good old fashioned street fight, and that’s exactly what we need. Accommodation has only yielded financial catastrophe.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 02/10/2011 - 09:47 am.

    I’m just fascinated currently listening to Gov. Dayton being interviewed by Kerri Miller on MPR. I heard her softball interviews with the Republican leadership where she scarcely even edged up to being confrontational.

    With Gov. Dayton, she’s being outright aggressive in an “I don’t believe you can do any of this” way. You’d almost think she expected that if MPR sounds enough like the weasel the Republicans won’t de-fund them.

    Edward R. Murrow, she’s not.

    Meanwhile, the Governor’s State of the State was honest and straightforward. The Republicans are already holding legislative hearings for the sole purpose of considering what the upcoming state government shutdown will cost them politically.

    The governor wasn’t the first to raise that idea. It’s been floating around ever since the election outcomes were known. That they’re expressing shock that he would raise it in his State of the State, only makes them sound like any number of kids who’ve got caught with their hand in the cookie jar and then loudly protested that they weren’t filching a cookie.

    I suspect that Gov. Dayton will stand his ground, will make it clear to the general public the damage the Republican approach to the deficit will cause, the public will side with him and rapidly regret that they flipped the legislature this year.

    But with the Republicans worshiping so devotedly and daily at the altar of “we can’t possibly tax the rich” they are simply unable to comprehend reality. It will be a rough couple of years, but the Republicans, by their completely illogical intransigence, will engineer their own resounding defeat in 2012 after which Governor Dayton will finally have a legislature which will partner with him in clearing away the rubble and beginning to undo the eight years of destruction worked by former Governor Pawlenty.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/10/2011 - 12:36 pm.

    What Kerri believes is kind of irrelevant? For all any of us knows, she may believe in the tooth fairy.

    I don’t know what’s going to happen with Gov. Dayton’s agenda. I do know some other things, however. I know that this state has neglected to deal with serious problems for a long time, and I know that neglect has made those problems worse, not better.

  8. Submitted by Dan Vogel on 02/10/2011 - 01:44 pm.

    Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine you win a million dollars. What do you do with it? Pay off debt buy things that you have been putting off. Now the next day you win another million dollars so you buy your dream house and fully fund your kids college tuition. The next day another million after that and so on and on. So eventually, all you are left to do with your money is to save it. Now imagine the state is going to tax that money and use it for the common good unless you find a way to spend it reduce you tax liability. In that case either you find ways to shelter your income by doing good with it or the state does. Tax the rich has worked in the past and is the only way out of current dilemma. Giving more money to the rich doesn’t help anyone.

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