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Walz touts return to normalcy, calls for unity in State of the State address

The governor used his to argue that the state is succeeding — but that his legislative agenda is needed to keep things that way.

Gov. Tim Walz: “I don’t need to say it. Every euphemism has been used. The last two years have been incredibly challenging.”
Gov. Tim Walz: “I don’t need to say it. Every euphemism has been used. The last two years have been incredibly challenging.”

Gov. Tim Walz has been governor for nearly four years but Sunday was just his second state of the state delivered in the traditional way: in person, in the Minnesota House chambers, before a joint session of the Legislature, with commissioners, statewide elected officials, supreme court justices and former governors in attendance.

It was a return to the ritual and the ceremony of an annual event that Walz didn’t let go unnoticed.

“I hope all of you felt as you walked in here tonight the sense of history that goes with this and the sense that we’re in this together,” the DFL governor said. “I think it’s what Minnesotans are feeling, the sense of once again gathering with friends and relatives and coworkers and doing the important things in life.”

The governor then tried to take advantage of whatever good feelings might be engendered by a return to normalcy in a state Capitol that remains politically divided. 

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“I don’t need to say it. Every euphemism has been used. The last two years have been incredibly challenging,” he said. “But in those challenges, both the people of Minnesota and these two bodies, figured out a way under challenging circumstances … figured out how to get good things done together.”

The state of the state is strong, Walz said. 

That’s what incumbents nearly always say, especially incumbents in a reelection year, especially those facing challengers painting the state and nation as troubled, even failing. And Walz used his nearly one-hour address to argue that the state is succeeding but needs his legislative agenda to keep it that way.

“We may not agree on everything. And if we’re being totally honest some of us won’t agree on anything,” Walz said. “But we owe it to the people of Minnesota to try to find common ground,” citing times over the last three years where a politically divided government has reached agreement.

Coming deep into the 2022 legislative session, this year’s speech held few surprises. For months, Walz has been touting the proposals he promoted Sunday night: using the state’s budget surpluses for rebate checks; being open to tax cuts aimed at lower and middle-income residents; fixing the unemployment insurance system; awarding thank-you checks to frontline pandemic workers.

He also endorsed paid family leave and paid sick leave, new spending on child care and education, $300 million in public safety grants to local governments, and proposed more money for recruitment and pay for home health care workers. 

And he reiterated a common Democratic theme — in Minnesota and nationally — that the pandemic economy helped some people and hurt others. Now, he said, with surpluses that were aided by unprecedented federal pandemic relief, the state should put money into child care and health care that serve those who suffered the impact of the recession. 

Shortly after the pandemic began more than two years ago, Walz gave his State of the State address alone, in the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, warning of the long winter COVID-19 had unleashed and that “staying at home” is the state’s only vaccine. Last spring, he addressed the state from his former Mankato West High School classroom, expressing optimism that actual vaccines would allow Minnesota to win the fight

Those speeches are now time capsules of how the state’s and nation’s response to COVID-19 went from a show of unity to a source of division. Walz both acknowledged those divisions and avoided them. He praised his Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm but kept his comments about her focused on her leading an effort to find and deploy health care workers. He praised Minnesota National Guard Adjutant General Shawn Manke for his troops’ deployment in vaccine centers and nursing homes rather than their actions during the unrest following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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“The pandemic has caused rifts between all of us. It has caused rifts that seem insurmountable,” Walz said. “My pledge is to listen and try to heal those rifts because the goal of everyone in this body and the goal of everyone who is a public servant is the health and safety of all Minnesotans.”

One of those rifts is over public safety. The riots following the murder of George Floyd and a rise in violent crime in the Twin Cities has provided Republicans with a potent campaign issue, and current GOP criminal justice proposals tilt toward policing and punishment. The DFL is leaning more heavily on responses that get at what they see as root causes of crime, including poverty, poor housing, and easy access to guns.

Walz touted working with community nonprofits that try to intervene with young people and gangs. “This is not one of those issues where it is enough to point out the problem. We need concrete solutions with measurable results that keep Minnesotans safe,” he said.

Following a technique first used by former President Ronald Reagan and now an expected cliche, Walz used faces in the gallery to personify his talking points. There was the head of the state nurses union when he spoke of hero checks, a resident and her son who changed her mind on the value of vaccines, a pair of small business owners when calling for the unemployment insurance fix, a home health care worker, and the mayor of the southern Minnesota town of Taopi that was hit by a tornado this month.

“We’re gritty. We’re resilient. We’re strong and diverse,” Walz said at the end. “We may argue, but I think we understand the blessings that have been given to us. No matter how divided it may feel at times, we’re still connected.”

As also is expected in these democratic rituals, the chief executive’s words were praised by his party and questioned by the other side. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Walz called his agenda ambitious — but that it needed to be more ambitious.

“We could cut taxes 10 percent across the board and still meet the demands of state government,” said Daudt, a Republican from Crown, referencing the GOP plan for a permanent income tax rate cut and an end to all taxes on social security benefits. He called the Walz rebates minuscule.

“I would challenge the governor to be more ambitious,” Daudt said. “With the resources we have we could invest back in Minnesotans who will grow our economy and we can grow our state.”

Daudt also criticized the governor’s public safety proposals that won’t address rising crime rates. “It doesn’t do anything to hold criminals accountable or recruit more people into law enforcement or support our current law enforcement,” he said. 

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Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, filled in for Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, who did not attend the speech. He said the education gaps in the state between whites and students of color are not solved by more money but by reforms in how education is delivered. 

The current education budget passed last year is at historic highs, something Walz bragged about as well. “We’re not changing the achievement gap. We’re not changing much of anything. Yet we keep putting in new money,” Dahms said. 

Though legislative DFLers are not fans of Walz’s rebate check proposal, preferring tax credits on child care and housing and other methods to target savings at lower-income Minnesotans, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said the governor’s speech was pro-worker, pro-family and pro-child. “Democrats are united behind the items in his agenda,” she said.