Dayton urges Legislature to press on

Published 8:15 am Thursday, March 10, 2016

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton laid out his vision Wednesday of a Minnesota with better water quality, a sounder network of roads and bridges and more early education options for children, even as he noted the political and economic pressures that could chip away at his goals for the Legislature this year.

Forced from the usual Capitol venue due to major renovations, Dayton delivered his annual State of the State address from the McNamara Alumni Center on the University of Minnesota campus. Just a day after lawmakers returned for a 10-week session, the Democratic governor tried to strike a conciliatory tone with House Republicans, urging both parties to work together and keep Minnesota on strong financial footing, something he called his top priority.

“We can continue down that road and build a state that works better for all Minnesotans. Or, we can reverse course and retreat to where we were just a few years ago: doing less and getting less,” he said.

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Though short on specifics about how he’d tackle his priorities, Dayton laid out the broad contours of how to build on his first term in office: expanding early education programs, improving water quality statewide and passing a major transportation funding package for a decade of road and bridge repairs. He vowed to unveil concrete proposals in a new budget plan next week.

He repeatedly harkened back to accomplishments from his first term, putting particular emphasis on those bills and measures passed when Democrats held both the House and Senate: boosting the state’s minimum wage, building up a massive budget surplus by levying a tax increase on Minnesota’s top earners, passing marriage equality and all-day kindergarten programs.

His look back was meant as a nod to lawmakers that they can’t let up. But it also reflects the political difficulties Dayton has faced with the Republican House since they took charge in 2015. Last year’s session dragged into an overtime period to finish the state’s budget — and ended with marquee deals on tax cuts and transportation unfinished.

Still scarred by the challenges of handling a $6 billion budget deficit to start his term, Dayton said protecting the state’s budget stability was his No. 1 priority for the year. He keyed in on signs of a souring national economy, noting its effect on the state’s shrinking budget surplus.

That extra sum has shrunk from $1.2 billion to $900 million. Dayton urged the Legislature to be cautious, deriding decades-old decisions to plow surpluses into tax rebate checks that prompted major government deficits.

“We have righted our state government’s fiscal ship,” Dayton said. “Yet, this forecast should give serious pause to everyone’s wish list for this legislative session.”