ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton urged GOP lawmakers in his State of the State address Wednesday to cooperate on shared goals like creating jobs and investing more in education, and reminded them that Minnesota voters will render a November verdict on how well they do.
With one eye on the Capitol landscape and the other on the next election, the speech illustrated Dayton’s key challenge: He needs Republican support to pass his agenda at the Capitol, but he’ll be looking to topple those same GOP majorities in the fall elections.
Dayton’s evening speech came before a joint session of the House and Senate in the House chamber. His plea for cooperation came three weeks into a legislative session most notable so far for continuing outbreaks of partisan anger that recalled last year’s bitter budget fight and partial government shutdown.
Dayton acknowledged that basic differences between him and the GOP have left state government largely unproductive over the last year. The Democratic governor wants to improve state finances by raising income taxes on the wealthy, while Republicans would rather cut spending.
“Next November, Minnesotans will decide which of our approaches they prefer. Until then, let us resolve that we will conduct this session’s financial affairs responsibly,” Dayton said during the 26-minute speech, which was regularly interrupted by applause — sometimes from all lawmakers, sometimes only from fellow Democrats.
Republicans hold a 37-30 majority in the Senate and a 72-62 edge in the House, and all 201 seats are on the November ballot.
While blunt in assessing the session’s political stakes, Dayton opened the speech with a reminder that all politicians share a responsibility to their children and grandchildren. He urged Republicans to team up with him on bills that would produce more jobs. He said despite signs of an economic recovery, there are still 168,000 Minnesotans who can’t find jobs.
“They must be our No. 1 priority,” Dayton said. “So, I say to legislators, let’s take your best ideas and my best ideas and turn them into jobs.”
After the speech, numerous Republican lawmakers said they share Dayton’s desire for cooperation but don’t know if it’s possible in the current environment.
“You saw everybody stand when he said we need to work together,” said freshman Sen. John Howe, a Red Wing Republican. But, Howe added, “There’s obviously a difference of opinion of how we get there.”
Dayton’s election-year warnings did not go unnoticed.
“I didn’t personally like the political aspect, the rhetoric about elections and things like that,” said Sen. Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. “I don’t think that belongs in a speech like that.”
Both Senjem and House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said they encourage an election that contrasts Dayton’s and the GOP’s approaches to budgeting.
In seeking a bipartisan emphasis on jobs, Dayton reminded lawmakers of his three main job-related proposals.
He wants swift action on his proposal to borrow $775 million for public works projects around the state, which he urged lawmakers to pass before the end of February. He said even if only half of an estimated 21,700 jobs are created by the bonding package, it would make a huge difference for the jobless.
“That’s still more than 10,000 Minnesotans, now unemployed, who could be working all over the state,” Dayton said.
He again urged lawmakers to finish and vote on a plan for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, saying it would mean another several thousand additional jobs. And he repeated his third proposal, a $3,000-per-hire tax credit for state businesses that hire unemployed Minnesota residents, veterans and recent college graduates.
Republicans have taken issue with all three proposals.
To improve job creation, they prefer cutting property taxes on Minnesota business and reducing government rules and regulations they say constrain businesses. In a nod to that point, Dayton mentioned previous cooperation between his administration and Republicans — most notably when they agreed last year to streamline the permitting that businesses must go through with agencies like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources.
“We can make it still faster, and we will,” Dayton said, going on to list efforts by other agencies to make government more user-friendly for business.
Dayton cited another 2011 bipartisan success, a bill that laid out a new licensing path for teachers with untraditional backgrounds. He hit hard on the importance of strong K-12 and higher education systems to the state’s economic future, but did not roll out any new proposals tied to those values.
Dayton spoke vaguely of GOP education proposals, warning that some “appear designed less to help students next September, than to help themselves next November.”
In looking back to 2011, Dayton unfavorably highlighted one agreement between himself and Republicans — the decision to eliminate a state budget deficit with $750 million in delayed state aid payments to schools. Another $750 million in borrowing was done against future proceeds from a state settlement with tobacco companies.
The $1.5 billion total borrowing agreement casts a bad light on the state’s current $876 million budget surplus. “No more borrowing,” Dayton said.
Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, said he was encouraged by that comment — but said it seemed inconsistent with Dayton’s hard sell on the bonding bill, which is a form of state borrowing.
As Dayton outlined differences between himself and Republicans, he returned multiple times to connect the thought to voters passing judgment in November. He is not on the ballot, but all of the legislators are. And their uncertainty is heightened by redistricting, with new maps that will redraw their boundaries to be released next week.
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