Gov. Mark Dayton urged lawmakers on Wednesday to stay the course he's set during his two terms as governor, using his final State of the State address largely to reflect on his seven years in office and send a message to his successor rather than lay out a new vision for lawmakers to consider this year.
The Democratic governor's address in the House chamber comes just weeks into the legislative session. It was his eighth and final annual speech to the Legislature as he prepares to leave office early next year, concluding a decades-long career in politics.
Lawmakers have a long agenda for the short session, including the daunting task of making sure Minnesota's tax code conforms with the recently passed federal tax cuts.
Confronted with a Republican-controlled Legislature that he has clashed with at the Capitol and in the courtroom, the roughly 25-minute annual address was short on specific proposals for lawmakers. Rather, he cautioned them against making major changes that could imperil the state's financial stability or reverse his emphasis on public school funding.
After taking office in 2011, Dayton spent much of his first term trying to solve a $6 billion budget shortfall. Brinkmanship with a Republican Legislature as it tried to fill that deficit triggered the longest state government shutdown in modern Minnesota history. In 2013, a Democratic takeover of the Legislature helped Dayton finally follow through on a campaign promise to levy higher taxes on the state's wealthiest earners.
The state has since enjoyed years of surpluses, and Dayton made clear to lawmakers that continuing that trend was the top priority for his closing act.
"Restoring fiscal stability to our state budget is one of the most important legacies I can leave Minnesota," Dayton said. "If we, and our successors, preserve our state's fiscal integrity and invest our present tax system's revenues in even better education, infrastructure and transportation, we will continue to offer better jobs, with higher incomes and other benefits to our residents."
Republican legislative leaders countered that the state's latest budget surplus — projected at $329 million — is proof that the tax cuts passed in both Congress and the Legislature last year spurred economic growth.
Dayton trumpeted the state's increased funding for public schools during his time in office, including a statewide, all-day kindergarten program and expanded preschool offerings. And he also touted major increases in the percentages of state workers of color and public employees with disabilities, which have grown by 50 percent and 40 percent since 2015 respectively.
That's been a major point of emphasis during his second term, and he said Minnesota has "led by example" for the rest of the state.
Dayton renewed his calls for two policies that have received a frosty reception from Republicans who control the Legislature. He again proposed a public health care option, pitching it as a better alternative to the increasing costs in the individual health care market. And Dayton also called on lawmakers to fund $1.5 billion in public construction this year, emphasizing needed improvements in water infrastructure projects across the state.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka called those and other proposals, like Dayton's call for stronger gun restrictions after last month's deadly school shooting in Florida, a "poke in the eye" that would go nowhere in the Legislature.
Dayton's speech was uneventful compared to last year, when he collapsed in the middle of his address. The governor returned to work the following day and revealed he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, though his doctors maintained that diagnosis was not a factor in his fall. He was surgically treated for the cancer last spring.
Always quick with a self-deprecating joke, Dayton began his address by poking fun at last year's episode.
"Some people have suggested I conclude my speech now, to make certain I can walk out by myself," he said to laughter. "However, this is my final State of the State address, and there is more I want to say."