Pawlenty declares state "strong, hopeful and prosperous"

Pawlenty's State of the State
Pawlenty's State of the State message centered largely on Minnesota's economic future, and the tax and spending policies it will take to keep the state strong. Social issues, like gay marriage and immigration, earned only a few paragraphs.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Pawlenty hasn't officially announced he's running for a second term, but the final State of the State of his first term certainly sounded like an election-year stump speech. He described the state as "strong, hopeful and prosperous", and he ticked off his achievements of the last three years, starting with the budget.

"We've completed the biggest financial turnaround in Minnesota history, going from a $4.5 billion deficit to a billion-dollar surplus," he said.

Attorney General Mike Hatch, a DFLer who's running to replace Gov. Tim Pawlenty, stands and applauds during Pawlenty's speech.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Pawlenty is referring to the state's revenue forecast from last November, which showed a $700 million surplus, all of which went to pay back schools for an accounting shift. About $300 million remains in the bank for lawmakers to spend, along with a projected $88 million surplus in the current budget cycle.

Pawlenty went on to note some of his proposals he's gotten through the Legislature, including performance pay for teachers, tougher penalties for meth dealers and sex offenders, funding for the Northstar commuter rail line, and his JOB-Z program creating tax-free zones.

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He then described where he'd like Minnesota to be in 10 years. His vision includes an education system that not only leads the nation, but leads the world in test scores. "A Minnesota where health care is available and affordable to everyone, with consumers in the driver's seat. A Minnesota that is the best place in America to start and grow innovative businesses and jobs. A Minnesota that is the safest place in the nation to live," he said.

Pawlenty wants Minnesota to double its use of renewable energy and make water pollution a thing of the past. He ended his list of goals with a nod to social conservatives.

We shouldn't be afraid of rational and robust debates about (same-sex marriage). This building was built for just such debates, and the foundations and the walls are strong.

"And a Minnesota where the traditional family structure is revitalized and life is protected and respected," Pawlenty said.

That line triggered a brief, silent protest. Three legislators, including DFL Rep. Karen Clark of Minneapolis, stood and turned their backs to the governor. Clark, who is openly gay, says she had to make a statement objecting to Pawlenty's support for a ban on gay marriage.

"It's so hateful. It's so mean. It's so divisive and it's so unnecessary," she said. "And he's way out of touch with Minnesotans as far as I can tell. Because from what I've seen most Minnesotans support domestic partnerships. They support civil unions. And what he's doing with that amendment attacks all of that."

Pawlenty specifically mentioned the proposed amendment banning gay marriage just once in his speech, calling on the Legislature to define marriage in the Constitution as a union between one man and one woman. But most of the governor's address focused on his proposals for education and health care.

On the education front, Pawlenty wants to require that Minnesota students take more math and science courses to graduate from high school. He says Chinese language classes should be widely available, and he is proposing $7 million for 10 school districts to expand advanced placement programs. Pawlenty also renewed his call for a voucher program that would allow some students to attend private schools, and have public dollars pay for tuition.

"In the past, I've proposed school choice as an alternative for poor, failing or disabled children. The Legislature should pass school choice at least as an alternative for our most disadvantaged students," he said.

Democrats reject Pawlenty's call for a voucher program. DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza says Pawlenty is proposing pilot programs that will help only a few schools, yet class sizes have gone up during Pawlenty's term.

"You could go through every one of those things that he laid out today, and ask what impact is that actually going to have on kids in Minnesota schools, and it's minuscule," Entenza said.

Entenza and other Democrats also find fault with Pawlenty's health care proposals, saying they don't do enough to help Minnesotans struggling to find affordable health insurance. The governor called for reducing administrative costs and requiring more cost information from health care providers. He says the state should consider requiring uninsured Minnesotans to get health coverage.

Turning their backs
State Reps. Karen Clark and Ron Latz stood with their backs to Gov. Pawlenty when he spoke in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"Basic health insurance is available for less than $200 per month. We need to direct our HMOs and insurance companies to raise awareness and get more uninsured people to use these plans," he said.

One of the Democrats seeking Pawlenty's job, Attorney General Mike Hatch, disputed Pawlenty's claim.

"Folks, I'd like to know where there's a $200-a-month policy that the average citizen can buy. We do have a MinnesotaCare policy, actually it was less than $200 a month, but keep in mind, he cut those people off. Is he willing to add those people back on?" Hatch asked.

During the state's budget crisis, about 30,000 Minnesotans were expected to lose their state-subsidized health insurance. Democrats want to use some of a surplus in a state health-care fund to expand MinnesotaCare to more low-income Minnesotans.

Pawlenty's other DFL rivals - state senators Becky Lourey and Steve Kelley and businessman Kelly Doran - were quick to criticize his speech, saying it was more rhetoric than* substance. Lourey says the governor can't claim credit for the biggest financial turnaround in state history. She says while he signed a no-new-taxes pledge, he backed what many consider a cigarette tax that's now in legal jeopardy.

"Really, we are still in a deficit. The empty, phony tax pledge has triggered the big tax tobacco lawsuit, which could well lead us into an immediate deficit," Lourey said.

The Supreme Court takes up the matter in April. Lourey received a standing ovation during Pawlenty's speech, after Pawlenty recognized her for the death of her son, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq last year. Pawlenty has proposed more financial assistance for military members and veterans, a plan that has widespread bipartisan support. He also called for a constitutional amendment dedicating sales tax money to environmental programs, and a plan to reduce mercury emissions. And while Pawlenty has said he won't sign another no-tax-increase pledge, his opposition to raising taxes hasn't changed.

"In a hyper-competitive economy, raising taxes is a bad strategy, especially in an already highly-taxed state," Pawlenty said.

That brought Republicans to their feet for what was probably the longest round of applause during Pawlenty's speech. Afterwards, Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum blasted Democrats for their criticism of the governor.

"The governor's message I thought was positive. It was hopeful, and it was a very, very good message of where we've been and the management that has taken us to the opportunities of the future," Sviggum said.

Sviggum praised Pawlenty's vision on the issues of education, health care, the environment and job creation. But the governor will likely have a hard time getting many of his specific proposals through the Legislature, in an election year where the stakes are so high, and where control of the Minnesota House may hang in the balance.