Gov. Mark Dayton gave a forceful defense of his economic and job-creation efforts Wednesday night, prodding legislators to invest more in education and transportation while spending ambitiously 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 DFL 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 coming generations. As part of that focus, he is seeking a new look at education, which he says should include more class days and keeping schools open longer each day.

The speech comes at an important time for Dayton as he heads into what is already shaping up as a tough and expensive re-election fight. Dayton is coming off a string of legislative victories, including raising the minimum wage, an anti-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.

“It’s unfortunate that Mark Dayton decimated Minnesota tradition tonight by turning the State of the State address into his own personal re-election speech,” said GOP gubernatorial rival Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner. “Governor Dayton didn’t come to my campaign kickoff event, and I didn’t feel the need to go to his.”

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 intensify their criticism of MNsure.

The governor said more than 200,000 Minnesotans are enrolled, with many of them receiving health insurance for the first time. “MNsure didn’t start well, but it’s gotten better and it will keep on improving,” he said.

A push to borrow for projects

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 statewide construction projects.

After years of deficits, Dayton has ridden a surging economy that has left state budget reserves at their highest levels ever.

Dayton told legislators that the state has plenty of money to handle a modest increase in annual borrowing 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 businesses and residents in his area.

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?”

Republicans maintain Dayton and DFL legislators could easily fit the water project into a smaller borrowing proposal. Instead, GOP leaders said, Democrats are insisting on the pipeline and less worthy projects.

“There’s plenty of room in an $850 million bonding bill to do all the things we need to get done,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

“We know that the Democrats strongly support it, but unfortunately they’re not willing to prioritize,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Dayton also called for more school days and keeping schools open longer each day. He also issued a stark condemnation of standardized tests.

“Many children come to school terrified on test days; then go home demoralized after them,” he 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?”

Praise for streamlining work

Dayton praised legislators for their commitment to his government streamlining effort, which targets 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 Dayton’s desk in coming weeks.

The government streamline initiative stands to play a significant role in Dayton’s re-election effort, as he tries to make the case that Minnesota has gotten better under his term and state government 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 the 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.

GOP gubernatorial rival Scott Honour said the state should be doing better.

“Under Gov. Dayton, our state is underachieving its potential due to his big government agenda and lack of leadership,” said Honour, an Orono businessman.


Staff writer Abby Simons contributed to this report.