By Baird Helgeson
Gov. Mark Dayton gave a forceful defense of his economic and job-creation efforts Wednesday night, prodding legislators to invest more in education, transportation and to be more ambitious in spending on state projects.
“While we have made great progress toward a better Minnesota, it should also serve as a reminder of the work left to do,” Dayton said. “We have to invest in growth, quality, and effectiveness.”
The Democratic governor used his final State of the State address before the election to stress that the state is now on firm financial footing and better positioned to make lasting improvements for generations.
The speech comes at an enormously important time for Dayton as he heads into what is already shaping up a brutally tough and expensive re-election fight. Dayton is coming off a string of legislative victories, including raising the minimum wage, an anti-school bullying measure and a round of tax relief for low- and middle-income Minnesotans. But some polls have showed Dayton’s approval slipping and GOP rivals are hammering him at every turn.
Republicans called the address a thinly-veiled re-election kickoff speech.
“What we’re going to hear tonight is more of the state of his campaign than the state of the state” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. The governor is “taking credit for a lot of good things and not talking about a lot of things that haven’t been so good.”
Dayton pressed for better unity around the Capitol, and said that the best way to solve the problems in the future is if both parties are invested and involved in the solution.
“We all love this state. We all want to see it prosper,” he said. “Many of our children and grandchildren will live here. We want them to achieve the very best they can for themselves and for their families.”
In a hint of the election season to come, Dayton defended MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange, which after a troubled launch is now hitting or exceeding early enrollment targets. Dayton took on the topic as Republicans continue to amp up criticism of it.
The governor said more than 200,00 Minnesotans are enrolled in the program, many having health insurance for the first time.
“MNsure didn’t start well, but it’s gotten better, and it will keep on improving,” he said.
With only a few weeks left in the legislative session, Dayton pressed legislators on one of the last major items on his to-do list: Increasing state borrowing to pay for more construction projects with statewide significance.
After years of back-to-back deficits, Dayton has ridden a surging economy that has repaid billions owed to public schools and left state budget reserves at their highest levels ever.
Dayton told Legislators that the state has plenty of money to make a modest increase in annual borrowing to pay for new projects, but the move would ratchet up debt to a level that so far is proving too high for crucial Republican votes.
To drive home his point, the governor invited Luverne Mayor Pat Baustian as a personal guest.
Baustian has been a leading advocate for $69 million in state money for a pipeline to bring fresh water to area businesses and residents.
Dayton said he would be willing to fully fund the project — and a host of others — but he’ll need Republican votes to do it. Without that, the water project and others have little chance to be fully funded this year.
“Why am I for a $1.2 billion bonding bill this year? Because I’m for jobs. Now and in the future.” Dayton said during the 45 minute address in the overflowing Minnesota House chamber. “Our building this pipeline means jobs now and more jobs in the future … Isn’t that a purpose we can all support?”
Dayton also called for more school days each year, keeping schools open longer each day, and he issued a stark condemnation of standardized tests.
“Many children come to school terrified on test days; then go home demoralized after them,” Dayton said. “What purpose does it serve to send a third-grader home believing she has failed life, because she may have performed poorly on a test?”
Dayton also praised legislators for their commitment to his government streamlining effort, which includes 1,000 laws or provisions that are antiquated, cumbersome or otherwise no longer necessary.
Legislators have already passed 121 of these measures, and hundreds more could be on his desk for a signature in coming weeks.
The government streamline initiative stands to play a significant role in is re-election effort, as Dayton tries to make the case that Minnesota has gotten better under his term and that state government is more efficient and effective.
“We must also work continuously to improve government services and provide Minnesotans with the quality and the efficiency they deserve,” Dayton said. “It is what citizens should rightfully expect from their government. It is what I expect.”
GOP gubernatorial candidate Kurt Zellers, a state House member from Maple Grove, said Dayton is wrongly taking credit for successes of hardworking Minnesotans.
“Our families, employers, employees and small business leaders are doing relatively well despite Governor Dayton’s mistakes, flip-flops and misguided policies, not because of his efforts,” Zellers said.
Senate Republicans, who have been a steady critic of Dayton in the Legislature, issued a statement saying Dayton deserves blame for historic growth in government spending. They called on the governor to press for deeper tax relief.
“Not many families or businesses are seeing that kind of growth in their own budgets,” Senate Republicans said. “Minnesota families need this money more than state government.”
Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.
His speech began shortly after 7 p.m. You can find a full transcript and track the action on our live blog below.