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The four big takeaways from Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2016 State of the State address

The governor’s priorities for the session include everything from addressing racial disparities to finding a transportation funding fix. 

For the 2016 session, Gov. Mark Dayton said his No. 1 priority is not a specific policy proposal, but “to protect the fiscal integrity of our state government.”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Gov. Mark Dayton isn’t exactly known for his riveting speeches. 

Even with the unusual setting of his sixth State of the State address Wednesday evening, which was held at the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota campus — the first time it’s been held outside the Capitol in years — there was little new or noteworthy about the whole affair. 

Instead, the 41-minute speech was vintage Dayton: loaded with rankings, numbers, budgeting jargon, a handful of self-deprecating jokes (“when I taught in New York City — a few years ago,” said the 69-year-old governor, who last taught in 1971) and an overall positive message about the state of the “North.”

“When I took office five years ago, I pledged ‘A Better Minnesota,’” the two-term Democrat said. “There is no doubt in my mind that our state is better today than it was back then.”

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But what the speech lacked in pizzazz it made up for in its collegial tone, which members in both houses of the Legislature agreed was a nice break from the partisan rancor that’s taken over the year in politics. “It’s nice to see someone who actually takes the job of governing seriously these days, compared to what’s going on at the presidential level,” DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said after the speech.

Even Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, one of Dayton’s chief political opponents, agreed: “There have been some forums recently where words have gotten a little sharp and has given me some reason to be a little bit nervous about how we are going to get through this session, but it was nice to hear the governor set a tone [good] tonight.”

In the course of the 5,386-word speech, the governor also managed to lay out his approach for the 10-week session, in which he must find agreement with a divided Legislature in a high-stakes election year. Here are the major takeaways from the address, which offer an outline of his priorities for the session:

Dayton wants a lead role when it comes to pushing the state to address racial disparities.
The first issue Dayton addressed in his speech, and the one to which he devoted the most time, was widening racial economic disparities in the state. It’s not a new topic for the governor, but it was clear that events in recent weeks and months were weighing on him. One of his guests at the speech was Asma Jama, who was assaulted late last year for not speaking English in an Applebee’s in Coon Rapids. A woman smashed a glass beer mug across Jama’s face, requiring her to get 17 stitches. Dayton also visited a vandalized mosque two weeks ago, calling it “one of the most most profoundly painful site visits of my career.”

“This despicable act of bigotry was even worse than others,” Dayton said. “It desecrated a place of worship.”

He cited efforts in his administration to double the percentage of minorities working in state government by the time he leaves office. He also plans to unveil a “significant initiative” in his supplemental budget next week to tackle the widening gap in income between black and white Minnesotans. “We cannot resolve these disparities in one legislative session, but we must begin now.”

He’s going to be cautious about spending.
For the 2016 session, Dayton said his No. 1 priority is not a specific policy proposal, but “to protect the fiscal integrity of our state government.” His entire speech was loaded with warnings for legislators and special-interest groups eyeing the state’s $900 million surplus. That number is down 25 percent from November, when state economists were predicting a $1.2 billion budget surplus. In 2018 and 2019, the projected surplus is down from $2 billion to $1.2 billion, he said. At an annual meeting of governors from across the nation two weeks ago, he added, prominent economists predicted the strong likelihood of a national recession by 2018.

Dayton knows about recessions: When he first took office in 2011, the state was facing a $6 billion budget deficit.

“I will not leave that kind of fiscal disaster to my successor or the people of Minnesota,” he said. Now, that doesn’t mean Dayton won’t propose some new spending in his supplemental budget next week, he said, but that does mean he’s soured on the idea of ongoing tax cuts. That’s setting him up for a clash with Republicans, who are promising a “robust” tax-cut proposal.

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He wants the Legislature figure out a fix for transportation funding.
Not once during the speech did Dayton utter the words “gas tax.” Last year, he said those two words a lot. In fact, an increase in the wholesale sales tax on gasoline was the cornerstone of his push for a 10-year transportation funding package for roads, bridges and transit, but it was rejected by anti-tax-increase Republicans in control of the state House. This year, Dayton wants the Legislature to figure it out. “I made my proposal over a year ago,” Dayton said. “Many people didn’t like mine.”

After the speech, Republicans said they were happy the governor didn’t talk about the gas tax, but that doesn’t mean Dayton isn’t going to push for transportation funding this year.

“I’m waiting for an alternative. I’m willing to be flexible, but I will also insist on a real solution,” Dayton added. “No smoke and mirrors. No double-counting existing revenues. No counting nonexistent revenues. This is about construction projects, not campaign posters. And it’s too urgent to be left for another year.”

His concerns about Minnesota’s environment go beyond water.
Dayton has spent a lot of time talking about his concerns about the quality of the state’s lakes, streams and drinking water. Just last month he held a two-day summit in St. Paul focused exclusively on water issues. He wants to spend $220 million this year to help small cities maintain clean water and sewer systems.

But his speech went well beyond water, looking at broader environmental concerns. This session, expect Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to push for more clean-energy jobs.

“From kids concerned that pond hockey doesn’t start until January to farmers trying to predict growing seasons to folks wondering why this year’s March blizzards have turned into 60-degree days, many thousands of Minnesotans have expressed their concerns about the growing impacts of climate change,” Dayton said. “It’s clear that we need to do more to protect Minnesota’s climate.”