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Minnesota Legislature

At Issue: Address is a snapshot of hard times

Published (2/11/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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After greeting Senate President Michelle Fischbach, Gov. Mark Dayton greets House Speaker Kurt Zellers upon entering the House Chamber to present his first State of the State address Feb. 9 to a joint convention of the Legislature. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)In his inaugural State of the State address, Gov. Mark Dayton invoked icons of Minnesota’s glory days and markers of its current economic slide. He implored lawmakers to help him avoid a government shutdown by pursuing bipartisan solutions to a “horrendous fiscal mess” he and the Legislature inherited.

Invoking the state’s proud history of prosperity and quality of life, he welcomed his father, businessman Bruce Dayton, and former Gov. Wendell Anderson as icons of the “Minnesota Miracle,” and noted Minnesota is home to more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other state.

House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) said he appreciated Dayton’s efforts to engage private sector leaders, and his interest in recruiting employers and jobs to build or expand in the state. However, he said the governor spent too much time looking at past successes and not enough outlining the state’s future.

“You don’t make an organization stronger by looking backwards; you look forward,” Zellers said.

Dayton revealed a bit of his plan to resolve the state’s projected $6.2 billion budget shortfall, which he must submit to the Legislature by Feb. 15.

He said he’ll propose increased funding for education, which he said has decreased by 14 percent in the past eight years once inflation is included. The governor said he’ll propose to expand all-day kindergarten. Such a program targeted to the most at-risk children could cost between $120 million and $190 million a year, depending on how it’s calculated, according to nonpartisan House Fiscal Analyst Greg Crowe.

“It’s really exciting,” said Rep. Nora Slawik (DFL-Maplewood). “We know investment in early learning pays off,” she added, noting that all-day kindergarten could prevent later costs in special education, remedial education and could help close the achievement gap.

She called the plan “brave” in the current budget climate because “it’s going to have to be funded one of two ways: new revenue or shifting costs from somewhere else.”

House Education Finance Committee Chairman Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) said he is not opposed to either a phase-in of all-day kindergarten or to “modest, but strategic, investments in early childhood education.”

House Speaker Kurt Zellers, right, and Senate President Michelle Fischbach listen in the House Chamber as Gov. Mark Dayton delivers his State of the State address Feb 9. (Photo by Andrew VonBank) Lawmakers know their work will begin in earnest next week after the governor releases his budget and legislators can begin to balance priorities in response.

“The governor clearly stated we have a very difficult challenge in front of us,” Garofalo said.

Dayton described that challenge by listing signs of the state’s economic slide. They include a 9 percent decline in real median income from 1999 to 2008; employment growth in the bottom 10 nationwide in the past decade; college tuition among the highest in the nation at public two- and four-year colleges; and a slide from eighth to 27th in national rankings of road conditions.

“Minnesota wants a better future,” he said.

To help fund that future, Dayton said he will ask wealthy Minnesotans “for their forbearance during this fiscal crisis” by paying higher taxes. In doing so, he quoted his father’s favorite Bible passage: “To whomsoever much has been given, of him shall much be required.”

Ten-year-old Alice Lesch, daughter of Rep. John Lesch, gets a warm handshake from Gov. Mark Dayton after the State of the State address Feb 9. (Photo by Andrew VonBank) Zellers said raising taxes during tough economic times would be detrimental.

“We agree with Governors Cuomo and Brown,” he said, referring to Democratic governors of New York and California who have pledged not to raise income taxes. “Let that sink in.”

Dayton invited lawmakers, business leaders and the public to invest in Minnesota, specifically in five ways he said would build future prosperity: more jobs; better education; improved transportation; the health of citizens, communities and the environment; and the transformation of government services.

“Investments require faith and trust,” he said, urging bipartisan cooperation and the collaboration of business leaders and the private sector to work toward those goals.

“Take away the fancy words ‘invest’ and ‘reinvestment’ and it’s tax and spend,” Zellers said. He was disappointed Dayton didn’t put job creation front and center in the speech. Instead of pushing bonding projects as a job creation strategy, Zellers said, what’s needed is competitive tax rates to promote “long-term, sustained economic growth” that stems from the private sector.

“No legacy Minnesota business is looking at expansion here,” he said.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) disagreed with the claim the governor hasn’t done enough to create jobs.

“The governor has led on jobs, taking action to streamline and put Minnesotans back to work,” she said. “It’s time to be honest with the people of Minnesota and do the real work of creating jobs. In fact if there is a lesson to be learned from today it is to listen carefully, to be thoughtful and to keep our promises to Minnesotans.”

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