Mary Ingman lost her husband Charley in a head-on car collision on a notoriously dangerous stretch of a highway in southern Minnesota. Amanda Fjeld is a math teacher whose northern Minnesota school district is facing layoffs if a voter referendum doesn't pass next week. Dairy farmers Debora and Kent Mills lived for a time without health insurance because they couldn't afford coverage.
In an anecdote-heavy address to the Minnesota Legislature Wednesday night, DFL Gov. Tim Walz used the stories from nearly a dozen hand-picked guests to make the case that lawmakers should support his plan to pump funding into state transportation projects, classrooms and access to affordable health care.
"Behind every one of the debates we have here, we have real people being impacted by this," Walz said. "Real people."
He repeatedly stressed that he and a divided Legislature can "write a new story" on how the session should end. "I do not want a single one of us in this building to fail because that means Minnesota fails," he said to a standing ovation.
Speech not prepared in advance
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It was Walz's first State of the State address, and breaking with tradition, the first-term governor didn't prepare his speech in advance or use a teleprompter to remember his lines. He carried a binder to the House rostrum with a simple outline, rarely glancing downward during the roughly 30-minute speech.
The idea was to bring realness to the sometimes stuffy formality of the annual address, but the approach was not without risk. The State of the State is a rare opportunity to speak directly to all 201 legislators and make a case for his budget and policy proposals.
The message could get lost in all that freewheeling.
But Walz, a former high school civics teacher, did his homework. He read the addresses of Minnesota governors going back to 1967, and he hit on his main policy points, animatedly pointing his fingers for emphasis and leaning on his guests to drive the narrative home.
One of his guests, Dr. Nathan Chomilo, is a general pediatrician and doctor of internal medicine in the Twin Cities, who focuses on the impact childhood intervention and health care access can have on the long-term health of children.
"Most of the children he sees in his practice are dependent on the health care access fund," Walz said, emphasizing his push to continue a 2 percent tax on health care providers that fills the fund.
Walz talked about losing his friend and neighbor, Charley Ingman, in a car crash on Highway 14, where 145 people have died in the last three decades. He said more transportation funding is needed to finish that project. Walz and Democrats in the House are pushing for a 20-cent gas tax increase this year, but the governor didn't cite the tax directly in his address.
"In the 23 years since Charley has died that is still a two-lane, dangerous road and the time has passed to fix them," Walz said. "We can do that.
Call to rise above partisan gridlock
He must strike a deal on a state budget and other policy measures with a Republican-controlled Senate and DFL-led House, the only divided Legislature left in the nation. The legislative session must adjourn by May 20, but their deadline to strike a two-year budget deal is before July 1 or the government will shut down.
Walz's nearly $50 billion budget plan has been out for weeks, and he didn't dig into the details of those plans or introduce any new ideas in his speech. The House and Senate have just started laying out their budget plans, but there are already clear fault lines between the two parties.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has said a gas tax hike and continuing the provider tax are non-starters for his caucus. But after the speech, Gazelka said he was glad Walz had a positive tone and stressed the need to work together.
"The governor is reaching out to us and saying, 'Let's build Minnesota together,'" said Gazelka, R-Nisswa. "We will respond positively and say: 'We can do this.'"
DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said she expects it to be a "bumpy ride" to get a deal on the budget and other contentious policy issues, but she said the system is designed to have some conflict.
"In the end we will find a way to compromise and get things done, and I think Minnesotans will be proud of their state when things are put to bed," she said.
Walz stressed a need to rise above the partisan gridlock that often waylays progress in Washington, D.C., where he was a member of Congress for 12 years before his election to the governorship last fall.
"It's easier to cover the plane that crashes than the one that lands," Walz said. "The story that Minnesota needs, and the country needs is a bipartisan, split government that came together and move things forward for Minnesota. That's what we can do."