In his first State of the State address, Gov. Tim Walz urged lawmakers of both sides to “write your own story.” And he didn’t use the campaign theme of “One Minnesota” even once.
Here are a few takeaways from the speech, given before a joint convention of the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives Wednesday evening.
The speech offered an olive branch — and a call to arms: There was lot of the former but also a little of the latter. Walz announced beforehand that he wasn’t going to use a prepared text, and wasn’t going to read from a teleprompter. Instead he said he was going to read the room and speak from the heart.
While it did come off as a talk rather than a speech, the DFL governor did let the introductions of nine “real people” direct his path through a litany of his top legislative issues: education, equity, health care, community development and transportation.
“Behind every one of the debates we have here are real people,” Walz said.
Some of what he called “stories” brought standing applause from just one half of the room — the DFL half. Those were his call for a 20 cent gas tax increase and the restoration of the provider tax that pays for many health access programs. The GOP opposes higher taxes and wants the provider tax to sunset, which was part of the deal when the provider tax was adopted in 2011.
Others, such as a request to honor a black World War II veteran who worked on behalf of his fellow veterans, drew bipartisan applause.
But Walz returned several times to his central theme: that things don’t have to be this way. “I hope you have come here not to act in someone else’s script. Let’s write a new script,” he said. And later: “We have to write a different story.”
“What are we going to do now?” he asked. “There’s already people who have written us off. You’ve seen the stories. Are we headed for gridlock? Are we heading for shutdown? Is it all just a fake? Are they getting along? But trust me on this. It’s easier to cover the plane that crashes than the one that lands. I’ll tell you right now the story that not just Minnesota needs but the country needs is a bipartisan and a split government that came together for the good of the people and moved things forward.”
There were lots of guests in the gallery: Walz followed the pattern set by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 that has been copied by nearly every president and governor since. He sprinkled the gallery with “real” people that he could point out to illustrate the points covered by the speech. Skipping this tradition would be as startling as not singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the 7th inning stretch. (Or is that “God Bless America?”)
There was Will Handke and Ross Pomeroy, twin brothers who were Walz’s students in Mankato West High School who created a granola bar company (message: investing in education leads to good things, especially if you like granola). There was Amanda Fjeld, a teacher in the northern Minnesota school district of Floodwood, which is struggling with a low property tax base and has a voter referendum (not investing in schools leads to bad things, like layoffs). And there was Twin Cities pediatrician Dr. Nathan Chomilo (keeping the provider tax to fund MinnesotaCare will allow the state to address the needs of the “whole child”).
There was also a World War II vet, Gordy Kirk, (honoring service); a neighbor of the Walz family, Mary Ingman, whose husband was killed in a crash on a dangerous highway (raising the gas tax could pay for transportation improvements); a north Minneapolis barber and entrepreneur, Houston White (investing in communities of color leads to good things); Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer (investing in local communities leads to good things) and a Goodhue County farmer, Deborah Mills, who has struggled to find health insurance her family could afford (creating a public option for health insurance and providing access to mental health care will help rural Minnesota).
It was touching, in a state constitution kind of way. To hear Minnesotans explain it, everybody else does their own SOTS speech darned early. Walz’s address is at least a month later than any other state but Louisiana, where Gov. John Bel Edwards will give his speech April 8.
Most other states schedule the traditional speech earlier in the legislative session in order to let the governor outline his or her agenda. But Walz has already done that — in beginning with an inaugural speech on Jan. 7 and in the rollout of his budget on Feb. 19.
So unlike all of those other states, his speech was meant to cover broad themes rather than specific bills and budgetary line items.
Oh, yeah, and there’s no constitutional requirement that there be a speech or that the speech be before a joint convention of the House and Senate. Walz could have sent a letter, a la Thomas Jefferson, or a tweet as long as it touched on “the state and country.” Touching? This is all the Minnesota Constitution says: “The governor shall communicate by message to each session of the legislature information touching the state and country.”
Or he could give a speech. According to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, that’s what most governors have done — though they didn’t start calling them the State of the State until 1969.
There’s a big difference between winging it and seeing what happens. Before the speech, Walz’s staff emphasized the boss’ refusal to use a prepared text or a teleprompter. They swore that the speech wasn’t “poll tested” but came directly from Walz’s heart. That said, the nine guests he used to illustrate points were certainly preselected based on the points he wanted to cover. And much of the speech seemed practiced, with talking points well distributed throughout the 31-minute address.
But Walz, a former public school teacher, didn’t appear to be looking at his lesson plan and instead relied on a pacing practiced during the campaign. He even reprised some of his campaign-trail jokes — like he is an optimist tempered by realism, something learned from supervising a high school lunchroom.
The state of the state is at a crossroads. By tradition, the “state” of the “state” (or union for that matter) is usually “sound” or “good” or “never better” or something positive. Famously, or infamously, President Gerald Ford described the state of the union as “not good” in 1975. Something about the resignation of President Nixon after the Watergate scandal, a recession, and an Arab Oil Embargo apparently put Ford off his game. His frankness didn’t go over all that well and he wasn’t elected the next year, losing to a guy who would later famously, or infamously, describe the country as being in a malaise (though he never actually used that word). That guy wasn’t re-elected either.
Lessons learned, perhaps. Walz, for his part, said the condition of Minnesota is “strong.” But also that the state is at a “crossroads.”
“We can choose to follow the same story that was written ahead of time, we can choose to decide who belongs and who doesn’t, we can choose to let ideology drive us or we can do what Minnesotans have always done: rise up and lead the nation.”
Some people liked it. Some not so much. The State of the State address is one of the highlights of the legislative social calendar. It is what passes as Legislative Date Night, with lots of wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends and even some sons and daughters. The statewide elected officials and Supreme Court justices — in robes, no less — were escorted in by the sergeant at arms. It’s also a civic church service, with lots of standing and sitting and some prayers. Still, everyone is in a festive mood but everyone also has a role to play. DFLers lead the applause and GOP members are merely polite.
In response to the speech, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka took up Walz’s call for civility. “I thought it was a good message, mostly reaching out and saying what are the things we can do together,” said Gazelka, a Nisswa Republican. “The issues he’s talking about, we care about as well. But one of the biggest issues is how much money to fix those issues and we’re looking at the taxpayer … the person who will actually have to pay for the things we want to do. If the governor is reaching out to us and saying let’s build Minnesota together, we will respond to that positively and say we can do this.”
But if Gazelka was playing the good cop, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt’s role was to play the bad one, seizing on the story of the Floodwood teacher, Amanda Fjeld, who could be laid off if that district’s referendum fails next week.
“A great way to provide more revenue for that school district would be for the governor to remove his opposition to Enbridge Line 3,” Daudt, R-Crown, said while wearing a button that said “Go Line 3.” “That line would go through that town and provide much-needed revenue for that school district. We can’t be so ready to just increase taxes all the time.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, not surprisingly, liked what she heard. Like Gazelka, she said Walz’s tone will make it easier for the leaders to work together as much as their different political views will allow. And she said she liked how Walz described the bipartisan deal 27 years ago that funded a health insurance plan for working people that became MinnesotaCare.
“He’s calling on our better angels,” said Hortman, of Brooklyn Park.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk went with religious overtones as well. “The governor reached out to the Legislature tonight with a pretty strong olive branch and I’m looking forward to working with the Republicans in the Senate to deliver on the governor’s budget priorities for our state,” said the DFLer from Cook.