ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton appealed Wednesday for a “unity of purpose” among lawmakers seeking to push Minnesota forward, saying differing political philosophies shouldn’t keep them from achieving progress in a state that he says is “much better than before.”
In the capstone State of the State address of his term, Dayton asked the Legislature to keep the idea in mind as they finalize tax-cut and spending bills in coming weeks that rely on a budget surplus. He urged them to pass a $1.2 billion construction projects bill, which is substantially more than one under consideration.
“While we may not find a unity of means, I believe we do share a unity of purpose,” the Democratic governor said. “We all love this state. We all want to see it prosper.”
Republicans dismissed the speech as a political look-ahead to Dayton’s re-election campaign and said the governor hadn’t lived up to his own pitch for inclusiveness.
The last time a State of the State address was delivered so late in the year was Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich’s address on April 21, 1977. Dayton’s speech comes as lawmakers are scrambling to conclude their annual session by May 19. Governors usually give the speech toward the start of the legislative session to lay out their objectives.
The timing has a lot to do with an early February hip surgery that sidelined the governor for weeks and still requires him to move around on crutches. Dayton entered the House chamber from a side door rather than making the ceremonial walk down the center aisle while shaking hands.
He used the platform to recap state efforts to foster learning among the youngest students, connect more people with health insurance and partner with businesses looking to grow in Minnesota.
Dayton highlighted the state’s job rebound since the recession ended, a college tuition freeze, new early childhood scholarships and statewide all-day kindergarten, a big boost to the minimum wage, and a stabilized state budget after a string of deficits. He said economic development assistance has helped lure companies to Minnesota and aided well-known businesses like the Mayo Clinic and 3M Co. in expansions.
“When I ran for governor four years ago, I promised ‘A Better Minnesota,'” Dayton said. “Tonight, I can report that the state of our state is better — much better — than before. It’s better for us, and it’s better for those who will inherit it from us.”
Minnesota’s workforce is now above 2.8 million and more than 150,000 jobs have been added since he took office.
A $6.2 billion deficit that greeted Dayton was been wiped away, and lawmakers had a $1.2 billion projected surplus at their disposal this year while also clearing a backlog of school IOUs. So far they’ve used more than $440 million to reduce or repeal taxes with much of the surplus yet to designate.
Dayton’s term, however, has had rocky moments. Republican majorities in his first two years clashed repeatedly with him, forcing a partial government shutdown in 2011. A Vikings stadium bill passed, but the main funding mechanism had to be reworked before a shovel went in the ground. The state’s insurance marketplace under the federal health overhaul stumbled from the gates and had to rally to meet enrollment goals.
If he’s back next year, Dayton said he would strive for a reliable funding source for roads, bridges and other transportation options that has eluded lawmakers for years. And he said he would try to rein in the amount of student testing, calling the current regimen “excessive” and “counterproductive.” He set a goal of expanding access to quality preschool to all children by 2018.
Democrats were effusive in their reviews, while Republicans saw the speech as something Dayton should have saved for the campaign trail.
Former state Rep. Marty Seifert, one of several Republicans aiming to challenge Dayton this fall, found the invitation for unity hollow given the governor’s sharper assessment of the GOP in other settings.
“You can’t talk about unity this week when you’ve called the Republicans dastardly and a variety of other names in the last couple of weeks,” said Seifert, of Marshall.
Others in the GOP chafed at what they saw as an attempt to take full credit for the state’s improved fortunes “like the source of all prosperity and good things comes from Democrat majorities in the government,” as Senate Minority Leader David Hann put it.
Republicans argued Dayton glossed over Minnesota’s struggles with the health insurance exchange launch, tax increases used to balance the budget a year ago and altered teacher testing requirements that they think will weaken qualifications for those at the head of the classroom.
Dayton did mention the health exchange — known as MNsure — that was used by 206,000 people to buy insurance policies required under President Barack Obama’s health law.
“MNsure didn’t start well, but it’s gotten better, and it will keep on improving,” Dayton said.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said Republicans are walking a fine line between drawing contrast and rooting against the state’s progress.
“They want Minnesotans to believe the state’s economy isn’t recovering, and that just isn’t true,” Murphy said. “We should be — all of us — happy about the state’s recovery, happy about what it means for Minnesotans and the way of life here. I feel infectious about it.”
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