One year after he warned of a long, dark winter ahead, Gov. Tim Walz told Minnesotans that "brighter days are here," as an increasing number of people are vaccinated against COVID-19, businesses start to reopen their doors and the economy slowly rebounds from the devastating toll of the pandemic.
The first-term Democrat delivered the message in his third State of the State address on Sunday from his old social studies classroom in Mankato West High School, where students have returned after a long stretch of distance learning to slow the spread of the virus. In front of a map of the world and a school flag, Walz said the setting served as a reminder of the progress the state has made over the past year of the global pandemic.
"Normalcy is on the horizon, and Minnesotans are eager to embrace the simple pleasures of life," Walz said in a roughly 20-minute speech recorded Sunday afternoon. "Whether it's that morning rush out the door to school, a warm cup of coffee with a friend, or for me, the busy chatter of a high school hallway between classes, we vow to never take them for granted again."
But he warned Minnesotans to stay vigilant as cases start to rise again, spurred in part by more infectious variants of the virus. Much like last year's address, which Walz delivered in quarantine after exposure to the virus, his speech Sunday was delayed by a week as he again went into isolation after a staffer tested positive for COVID-19. "The thaw is here," he said. "But in Minnesota we know better than to let our guard down at the first sign of spring."
The speech comes at a critical moment for the state, which is in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible. More than 1.5 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, including 80% of seniors.
Walz announced last week that everyone 16 and older will be eligible for the vaccine starting Tuesday, and he used his speech to implore all Minnesotans to get their dose when it's their turn.
"Getting vaccinated is how we end this pandemic," he said.
The address also landed on the eve of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is facing murder and manslaughter charges in the death of George Floyd last May. Walz said the case sparked an international racial reckoning and exposed the state's own inequities for the "world to see."
Days of civil unrest in Minnesota after Floyd's death left more than a thousand businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul damaged, looted or burned.
As he called for major steps to end the state's pervasive racial disparities, Walz referenced a speech the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave in the Mankato West High School auditorium in 1961, where the civil rights activist preached about the practice of using nonviolence to protest segregation.
"As the trial of Derek Chauvin is underway, tensions and emotions will understandably run high," he said. "Minnesotans, make your voices heard. Practice your First Amendment right — but please, Minnesotans, heed Dr. King's advice that nonviolence is the only way to truly move hearts and create change."
While Walz focused on the pandemic, the governor also used his speech to make the case for his proposed two-year budget, highlighting his push for tax breaks for families and to pump funding into businesses and classrooms struggling during the pandemic.
The governor and the nation's only divided Legislature are trying to strike a deal on a more than $50 billion state budget by the time the session adjourns on May 17. The job was made easier after a budget deficit turned into a projected surplus in February, but ideological divides remain between the parties on whether to raise taxes to pay for relief for those hit hardest by the pandemic.
While he didn't reference it directly in his speech, Walz is proposing to raise taxes on corporations and the state's top earners. In a prerecorded response to Walz's speech, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka reiterated that tax increases are off the table for his caucus.
Gazelka echoed the hopeful tone of Walz's address, but he gave credit for the influx of vaccines to former President Donald Trump, and he called on Walz to lay out clear benchmarks for when he will relinquish the emergency powers he's used to respond to the pandemic.
"Minnesotans should know we are moving in the right direction," he said. "We have focused on the things that we need to get done and now we are asking the governor for clear guidance of when he will lift the emergency powers. We think he should have lifted them a long time ago."
Democrats in control of the state House praised Walz's leadership during the pandemic and said the state needs a budget that will help Minnesota recover and address the racial inequities the pandemic has exacerbated.
"We must ensure that Minnesota is a more equitable state where everyone has economic security and opportunities to succeed," DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said in a statement.
The tone of the address was a dramatic shift from Walz's State of the State one year ago, when he told Minnesotans that "staying home is the only vaccine we have right now."
Today, the "state of our state is strong," he said. "This is our goal-line stand. Get vaccinated. We're coming back."