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.
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.