Early in his State of the State speech Thursday night, Gov. Mark Dayton tried to address the matter at hand head on: what is the state of our state? The answer, according to Dayton: Good. But with some caveats. “Not everywhere,” he told a full House chambers. “Not for everyone, but overall, Minnesota is doing better than it has for some time, and Minnesota is doing better than most states.”
It wasn’t a controversial statement: Minnesota’s economy is clearly on the upswing and lawmakers have a nearly $2 billion budget surplus to spend this session after years of deficits. But actually qualifying the state of the state is something governors, including Dayton himself, have avoided doing in the past, and was one of the few unexpected moments in an otherwise unsurprising address.
There’s a reason for the paucity of new ideas: the speech came late in the 2015 legislative session, and Dayton has already publicly laid out most of his priorities. Instead, he used his speech to reiterate familiar themes: college campus tuition freezes, more funding for early education (particularly his universal pre-kindergarten proposal), and even more money on transportation improvements around the state. And he again called for a robust bonding bill this year to put construction workers back on the job.
“I am frequently asked, ‘What are my top priorities for this session?’ ” Dayton said. “My simple, straight answer is: Everything.”
Dayton was feisty and forceful in pushing for those priorities, but his comments were far more reserved than some anticipated from the self-proclaimed “unbound” governor. As popular in the polls as ever, Dayton is serving his final term as governor, and at 68 years old, he’s not running for another office.
At one point, he asked legislators to use the remaining six weeks of session to be a little unbound themselves, to take a few political risks. “Will we do what is easy, safe, and popular; or will we risk our political lives to preserve this great state for future generations?”
The speech was a short one for Dayton — clocking in at just 32 minutes and roughly 3,500 words, it was less than half the length of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges State of the City address — but there were a handful of things to glean from the governor’s fifth State of the State address:
1. His transportation proposal may be in trouble
Dayton made it clear that education is priority number one this year, and that his number two is his $11 billion plan to spend on roads, bridges and transit over the next decade. What was noticeable, though, was that Dayton didn’t mention the $11 billion figure, or the smaller $7 billion plan Republicans are proposing. Nor did he did mention how he wants to pay for his plan: a sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level.
He did say what he wouldn’t do: Use the surplus or money from the state’s general fund to pay for road and bridge projects, which Republicans propose to do. “Reallocating general fund dollars to pay for essential transportation improvements will inevitably pit those needs against educating our children; caring properly for for our elderly; enhancing our natural resources; fulfilling the important promises of the Working Parents Act; and providing quality, affordable healthcare for all our citizens,” Dayton said. “People should not be pitted against projects. Both are too important.”
But Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt was as adamant as ever after Dayton’s speech that there should be no gas tax proposal this year, leaving few options left on the table between the two of them. “I don’t call that priority,” Daudt said. “I think we can respect Minnesotans and solve this problem without increasing a tax and that’s what we are going to do.” After the speech, DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk sounded discouraged about the prospects of passing a comprehensive transportation bill this year. “I spend a lot of time thinking about that...it’s one of the more difficult bills I think to navigate.”
2. He’s doubling down on water buffers
The governor saved some of the strongest remarks at the end of his speech for a single proposal: 50-foot wide grass or other buffer strips between all farmland and waterways. It’s crept up as a significant priority for the governor in recent weeks, with him traveling around the state to town-hall type events to answer questions about his plan. It’s gotten some pushback from House Republicans and agriculture groups, who say it will be too costly to implement.
But in his State of the State speech, Dayton said he was “unwilling” to wait another year to pass the bill. “Some lakes, rivers, and streams all over our state have become dangerously polluted — so bad that fish can’t live in them and people shouldn’t swim in them,” he said. “One Minnesotan living in a town providing free bottled water to its residents after its water treatment plant malfunctioned, said, ‘that’s just the way it is, living here.’”
Daudt professed to be a bit surprised by the time the governor devoted to the issue, and even Bakk hesitated to say much about its chances this session. Addressing the prospect that his buffer bill is dead? “I find that hard to believe and impossible to accept. You are the bill’s future,” Dayton told lawmakers. “Passing it is your responsibility.”
3. He's holding his fire on health care
And where water buffers got several solid minutes of play in Dayton’s address, health care did not. In fact, Dayton only said the words “health care” twice in his entire speech, despite the fact that it’s the second largest part of the state budget. In past State of the State addresses, Dayton has given considerable attention to his health care goals, specifically the need to provide coverage to the most needy Minnesotans and set up a healthcare exchange. But he made no mention of the exchange, MNsure, in his speech Thursday night.
Sure, MNsure hasn’t had the smoothest rollout, and most agree some changes should be made this session, particularly around the governing structure of the exchange. But many expected Dayton would at least criticize a House Republican proposal to cut somewhere in the area on $1 billion in health and human services this session, most likely in the state’s MinnesotaCare program for vulnerable residents. He was quiet on that topic, at least for now.
4. He doesn’t think tax increases led to the surplus
It wouldn’t be the first time a politician took credit for a budget surplus, but Dayton refrained from tying the tax increases he passed with a DFL-led Legislature to the $2 billion budget surplus they’re seeing now. “It is Minnesota’s economic successes, not tax increases, that have produced our present budget surplus,” he said.
But he did use this part of his speech to offer some of his harshest criticisms of Republicans, who have railed on the tax increases on the campaign trail last fall and are now proposing $2 billion in tax cuts. “I have heard that complaint many times, throughout the 38 years I have been involved in Minnesota government. If we have a budget deficit, it’s because taxes are too high. If there’s a surplus, taxes are too high. Whatever is wrong with Minnesota, taxes are too high.”
“Unfortunately, our state’s successes are seldom acknowledged inside this building,” Dayton continued. “Its inhabitants are too preoccupied with assigning blame for real and imagined shortcomings.”