Gov. Tim Pawlenty took his State of the State address on the road to St. Cloud, where he called on lawmakers to reform health care and education.
Pawlenty opened his Feb. 13 speech by celebrating the state’s accomplishments during its 150th anniversary, but drew somber attention to the trials of last year’s flooding, drought, forest fires and the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
“In 2007, Minnesota faced a decade’s worth of disasters in a year’s time,” he said. “But in the midst of trouble, our state and our nation saw the character and resolve of Minnesota come shining through.”
The political scene was also turbulent. Last year, the governor delivered his speech at the traditional venue of the House chamber, when the budget surplus was estimated to top $2 billion and hopes were high for bipartisan cooperation with the newly-elected DFL majority.
This year’s speech, his sixth, came amidst a looming $373 million budget deficit and high tension between the DFL and Republican caucuses, who are renegotiating several bills vetoed last session.
Reoccuring themes popped up, however, as Pawlenty offered up ways to improve the state’s education system, suggested a cap on property taxes and pledged to veto any tax increases.
Pawlenty again emphasized improving the state’s education system, but this time he said he wants to address teacher training.
“Much needs to be done, but let’s prioritize by focusing on the area of most acute need and highest impact — training for math and science teachers,” he said.
Pawlenty proposed a “world-leading summer training institute” for math and science teachers and asked lawmakers to increase funding for regional math and science academies by 50 percent.
He suggested developing an interactive teaching toolbox modeled after video game technology, available to teachers statewide.
“Let’s start by developing a world-class, digitally-stored, always-available, anywhere, anytime, jaw-dropping, eye-popping teaching toolbox accessible to all our teachers and students,” he said.
Pawlenty also said he wants to make it easier for mid-career professionals to enter the teaching field, and added that tenured teachers should be held more accountable with annual evaluations.
“Minnesota is the best place in the nation to lead the way on major health care reform,” Pawlenty said.
The health care system should focus on quality of care instead of how many procedures a doctor performs, he said.
Using a market-driven system, Pawlenty proposed lowering costs by switching to electronic medial records, standardizing billing, and preventing and treating chronic conditions. The savings could be applied to lower premiums or to extend coverage to the uninsured, he said.
Pawlenty didn’t linger on the topic of transportation, as the Minnesota Department of Transportation and its commissioner, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, grappled with a limited budget while fielding accusations from those who claimed MnDOT was to blame for the bridge collapse and a crumbling transportation infrastructure.
He urged lawmakers to use bonding, not taxes, to fund transportation projects and received a standing ovation from those in his party after he pledged to use his “taxpayer protection pen” to veto any proposed increase in taxes.
Yet, he asked lawmakers to pass a bipartisan transportation bill.
“We can’t continue the stalemate that has existed for three decades over these issues,” he said. “I remain hopeful we can overcome the politics and rhetoric of this debate.”
A 21st century economy
While remaining firm to his promise for no state tax increases, Pawlenty proposed a new entity, the “21st Century Tax Reform Commission” comprised of Minnesota employers, entrepreneurs and investors to recommend tax reforms to boost the economy.
Pawlenty also asked for support on his September proposal, the Strategic Entreprenuerial Economic Development (SEED) initiative, to help create new businesses and jobs.
Pawlenty called for the Legislature to bond up to $20 million to funnel into low-interest loans that communities can use for green energy sources. He also proposed to increase the use of biodiesels, like soybean oil, in diesel fuel from 2 percent to 20 percent.
Pawlenty asked lawmakers to purchase 3,000 acres of land along Lake Vermilion for a new state park using the Environmental Trust Fund instead of the general fund.
Pawlenty asked the Legislature to pass a military and veteran’s package that he proposed in November. The package expands services for veterans, including educational benefits, and supports businesses that employ veterans.
He thanked Chaplain Major John Morris, of the Minnesota National Guard, who led the invocation before his speech, and helped found the state’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program. The program helps reintegrate soldiers returning from overseas.
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