Listen Gov. Mark Dayton's final State of the State address
Listen MPR's Tim Pugmire: Dayton takes trip down memory lane in last big speech
Mar 15, 2018
Tilting toward the end of a career in public office, Mark Dayton drove home messages Wednesday he views as the hallmark of his two terms as governor: Giving schools a budget boost, protecting the state's water quality and taking Minnesota off the fiscal rollercoaster.
The DFLer's eighth and final State of the State address concentrated as much on memories as on his remaining mission.
"My father used to say, 'Time flies when you're having fun; and even when you're not,'" Dayton said before a joint session of the Legislature.
He sketched out a path ahead for the session that aligns with Republican lawmakers in some areas and departs from them in others. Dayton said he wants to work with them on dramatic tax changes, but he also challenged them to take up new gun restrictions.
"Minnesota lawmakers face another clear choice this session," he said. "They can side with the NRA, who strongly opposes common-sense solutions to reduce gun violence in our schools and communities, or they can side with the schoolchildren of Minnesota who are begging us for it."
Dayton will provide more detail on Friday about how he intends to carry out goals for this legislative session. That's when he's due to release his proposal for the projected $329 million budget surplus.
He also intends to outline how he would remake the state tax code to account for a federal overhaul.
He previewed that complicated task in the primetime speech. Doing nothing, he said, would jack up state tax burdens. But mimicking the federal changes would also push up what some people owe while giving a big break to others.
"Our number one priority," Dayton said, "should be tax fairness for individual Minnesotans and their families."
There were moments of nostalgia throughout.
Dayton recounted how he took the job with a $6 billion budget deficit to tackle out of the gate. His first year involved a standoff with Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, leading to a three-week government shutdown and a solution closer to their bargaining position than his.
But two years later, when Democrats swept into power, he powered through a tax increase based largely on higher income taxes on the wealthy.
Nine of the last 10 state economic forecasts have showed Minnesota with a projected budget surplus. Rainy day reserves have also been replenished and now exceed $1.6 billion.
"Restoring fiscal stability to our state budget is one of the most important legacies I can leave Minnesota," Dayton said. "During my final year in office, I will not support any budget, tax or policy proposals, which would threaten that stability."
He touted past and pending efforts to promote and better fund public education, shore up water quality and expand access to health care.
Dayton reflected on his travels throughout the state and the world as Minnesota's ambassador. He dashed off a list of top rankings the state holds for quality of life.
Yet he also said challenges remain, including making state government and society itself more inclusive for people of differing backgrounds.
"But my time is running out," Dayton said, "so I must leave them to all of you. I want again to thank the people of Minnesota, who have supported my career in public service. It has given me so much — and so much more than I could ever return."
Following the speech, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Fridley, said she thinks Dayton can be proud of the legacy he is leaving.
"We have gone from the decade of deficits to the decade of surpluses," she said, adding that she's happy with his investments in education.
Dayton's call for safe schools was appreciated but Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said they fundamentally differ on what that looks like.
Nash said he's happy to invest in school safety in the form of physical security like resource officers in schools, and that he hopes the governor would sign legislation supporting that security in the near future.
State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka echoed those views, pointing to efforts to "harden the target," when it comes to school shootings, and adding that making resources on mental health more available will be a priority.
"But when you talk about guns on either side of that issue the fact is that's just not going to get anywhere," Gazelka said. "I'm thankful for the things we can agree with with the governor, we'll going to focus on those. And those will be the things that Minnesota will be proud of that we got done."
A key Republican lawmaker said after the speech that he does see eye-to-eye with Dayton on the need to fix problems with sewers and other water treatment facilities around the state.
"Across Minnesota we have a lot of towns that have under their streets infrastructure that was installed between 1930 and 1950, and it's all wearing out at the same time," House Capital Investment Committee Chairman Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said. "So in order to meet the needs we have to invest a considerable amount in our water infrastructure."
However, Urdahl isn't promising the $167 million Dayton asked for. He says it will be difficult to free up that much money in a construction bill lawmakers hope to pass this year.
Dayton has been an enigmatic figure in Minnesota politics since the early 1980s, when he spent millions from a family department store fortune pursuing a U.S. Senate seat. He lost that first race in 1982, but won a contest for state auditor eight years later.
After a failed bid for governor in 1998, Dayton landed a spot in the U.S. Senate two years after that. He left following one rocky term and was seemingly done with elective office.
But Dayton re-emerged in 2010 to barrel through a crowded field for governor, winning a three-way race that spilled into a recount. Re-election proved easier in 2014, which Dayton had said would be the last time he would face voters.
Dayton will be weeks away from his 72nd birthday when he leaves office in January. He's often joked that he'll disappear to Big Sur, Calif., where he would be nearer to one of his sons and where he has ties to a spiritual retreat.
He has about nine months left — he reminded people just this week that the countdown dipped to 300 days — to check more off his to-do list. The next two months will be consumed by negotiations with a Legislature again controlled by Republicans.