The health care safety net is failing Minnesotans, and school districts are facing teacher layoffs, Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday night, using his first State of the State address to urge lawmakers to break through partisan gridlock and improve the lives of people around the state.
Walz called on stories of eight Minnesotans, including a doctor, teacher and farmer, to underscore his key policy and spending plans. The Democratic governor is advocating for a significant increase in the state’s per-pupil school funding formula and is pushing a number of tax proposals the Senate Republican majority has staunchly opposed. One continues a tax on health care providers, another would increase the gas tax by 20 cents a gallon to improve roads and bridges.
“Behind every one of the debates we have here are real people,” Walz said in a speech delivered in the Minnesota House chambers, where he urged lawmakers not to let ideological divides get in the way of serving residents.
Walz opted to forgo a teleprompter and use only an outline to guide his 30-minute address. The former high school geography teacher likened his approach to most major speeches to his days riffing in the classroom and said he wanted to be in the moment and respond to the feeling in the room.
The divisions were evident in the chambers, where Democrats gave standing ovations for many policy priorities while Republicans often remained seated.
Walz said he hoped to break through that partisan division with stories of Minnesotans.
Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician and internist, was one of Walz’s eight guests. Chomilo has been an advocate for continuing the health care provider tax, which Republicans call the “sick tax.” It’s a moniker that upsets Chomilo, who said the tax does not penalize the sick but helps keep people healthy by expanding access to health care coverage through the MinnesotaCare program.
“There’s just been no other viable options to help fill that gap in funding that supports so many programs and supports our safety net,” Chomilo said, and families across the state will suffer if it sunsets.
Walz discussed the concerns and challenges of the eight residents, including budget woes facing small cities and towns, racial and economic opportunity gaps and the deadly consequences of failing to update and maintain roads.
Two of Walz’s former students and Amanda Fjeld, a math teacher from the Floodwood School District in northern Minnesota, were among the guests. They were there to support his proposed education investments. Fjeld’s district is voting on a referendum next week, and a quarter of the district’s teachers would be cut and classes would be consolidated if it doesn’t pass.
“The inability to move politics in a more regular order or regular manner is holding us back,” Walz said in an interview Tuesday with the Star Tribune.
He hoped the stories of people like Fjeld would help lawmakers shift toward bipartisanship.
“My goal is all of us, me included, to decide in that room that we want to write a little different story,” he said. “That there’s a different way to go about this.”
Minnesota is the only state in the nation with a divided Legislature, with Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats holding a majority in the House. In his speech, Walz, who served six terms in Congress, said Minnesota should not follow the partisan lead of Washington, D.C.
The governor’s tone was positive and encouraging, Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. He said Walz’s speech focused on the right subjects, including education, health care and local government aid.
“The issues are the issues that we all need to talk about. The struggle will be that he wants $3 billion in tax increases to do that, and we think we can do that within the resources we have. That will be the great debate,” said Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
Senate Republicans unveiled budget targets last week that raised neither taxes nor fees and called on committee chairs to approve relatively lean budgets to make it work. The Republicans want to end the tax on health care providers and continue a reinsurance program that gives money to insurers to help keep premium costs down. Instead of reinsurance, Walz is advocating for a premium subsidy and wants to offer a public health care buy-in program starting in 2023.
The State of the State came a day after President Donald Trump said Republicans would wait until after the 2020 election to offer a replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
“We don’t have until 2021,” Walz said, telling the story of dairy farmer Deborah Mills, who couldn’t afford health insurance. Mills, who supports a public buy-in option, said in a statement that it’s important for farmers to have access to affordable health care and mental health services.
“I think we can stand in agreement that all of our citizens should have the basic safety net, the basic security that comes with having access to health care,” Walz said.
The complete picture of the Senate and House budgets will emerge by April 12, House Speaker Melissa Hortman said, and the true test of bipartisanship will come in early May. That’s when it will be evident whether legislators — not just party leadership — are working across political lines to come up with solutions, she said.
Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, pointed to the bipartisan work of decades past, when former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson worked with Democrats to create MinnesotaCare, which provides low-income Minnesotans with health insurance. They started the 2 percent provider tax to pay for it and other health care programs.
“I think [Walz] is calling on our better angels to rise to that moment again,” she said. “And preserve that legacy.”
Staff writer J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.