DFL Gov. Mark Dayton used his fifth State of the State message to contrast his legislative priorities to the ones House Republicans are pushing this session.
Dayton appeared before a joint session of the Minnesota House and Senate Thursday night and called on lawmakers to take bold action in the remaining five weeks on proposals dealing with jobs, education, transportation and the environment.
"Right now we have a rare moment of opportunity. The state of our state is good. Not everywhere. Not for everyone. But overall, Minnesota is doing better than it has for some time, and Minnesota is doing better than most other states," he said. "What we've been doing is working."
Dayton took aim at House Republicans and warned against undoing several budget measures enacted by Democrats the past two years, including tax increases. With a $1.9 billion surplus, Dayton also warned Republicans not to use general fund money to pay for roads and bridges. He prefers using a dedicated gas tax increase.
"Reallocating general fund dollars to pay for essential transportation improvements will inevitably pit those needs against educating our children, caring properly for our elderly, enhancing our natural resources, fulfilling the important promises of the Working Parents Act and providing quality, affordable health care for all citizens," Dayton said. "People should not be pitted against projects."
Dayton also asked lawmakers to pass his plan for statewide preschool for 4-year-olds. He called on critics of his plan to require farmers to leave a buffer zone next to lakes and streams to suggest a better way to protect water quality. And he challenged lawmakers to support his $842 million package of public construction projects.
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House Republicans have said a bonding bill should wait until next year.
"That just doesn't make sense," he said. "Interest rates remain low. We have capacity for the debt service within existing guidelines and many of those and other improvements are urgently needed."
Despite the sometimes confrontational speech, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown said afterwards that he's still ready to work with the governor to find common ground.
"There are some disagreements this session obviously. But I think there are areas where we do agree," he said. "I think we agree there's need to spend some money on roads and bridges. I think Minnesotans want and expect that.
"What I was hoping to hear from the governor tonight was that he was walking away or walking back from his proposal to raise the gas tax. I think with the current resources we do need to do that. We don't need to put that burden on Minnesota families."
Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie was mostly underwhelmed by the speech.
"There isn't really anything new here. It's kind of late in the season to do this. But we did hear a lot of the same: more spending, doubling down if you will on the idea that we need another tax increase to do transportation improvements," Hann said. "We don't believe that's necessary, and we've put together plans to show we can do it without those tax increases."
Democrats generally praised the governor's speech.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said Dayton laid out an agenda very similar to the one his caucus is pushing. Bakk said he's optimistic about most of that agenda getting passed.
"Never underestimate the power that governors have to get things that they want. I'm going to do everything I can to help deliver on most or as much of what he promoted tonight," he said.
Bakk said reaching an agreement with House Republicans on a comprehensive funding plan for transportation will be the biggest challenge of the session.