Dayton challenges lawmakers

Published 10:15 am Friday, April 10, 2015

Governor elevates education, transportation as central priorities

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton urged lawmakers Thursday to take political risks rather than follow public opinion polls as the Democrat sought support for an expansive preschool learning plan and other parts of his ambitious agenda in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Mark Dayton

Mark Dayton

The call was an overarching theme of Dayton’s first State of the State speech in a second term, with his final campaign for political office behind him.

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“During the remaining six weeks of this legislative session, we will face our own moments of truth,” Dayton said in the prime-time speech. “Will we do what is easy, safe, and popular; or will we risk our political lives to preserve this great state for future generations?”

The challenge could apply to several parts of Dayton’s agenda, including his bid for a new gas tax to pay for road-and-bridge repairs. Legislative Republicans — and some Democrats — are resisting that course. All 201 legislative seats are on next year’s ballot.

Dayton’s address comes later in the year than usual as he tries to stamp an exclamation mark on previously outlined proposals rather than roll out new ones. He has already released a two-year budget proposal, the long-term transportation finance plan, a general public works program and much more.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett said she is hopeful Dayton will remain engaged with the Legislature and is prepared to work in good faith with both parties on the buffer proposal and other issues, including roads and bridges.

“Farmers and citizens have been giving feedback and suggestions to Gov. Dayton on his buffer plan at meetings across the state for the last month, so it was disappointing that he has not yet announced changes to his proposal, and instead continued his negative rhetoric about farmers and the groups that work on their behalf. We all want clean water, and will continue working on ways to help protect Minnesota’s beautiful lakes, rivers and streams.”

Tom Bakk

Tom Bakk

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a Democrat, said history suggests the governor will attain many of his goals, even if the result isn’t as bold as what he’s pursuing.

“Most of those things are scalable and may not happen at the full level that he’s proposed them,” Bakk said. “Some variation of most of what he’s talked about is likely to happen.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican, said Minnesota’s economy is improving but at a cautious rate, so lawmakers should exercise restraint.

“We ought to be very careful with the surplus and our spending,” he said, adding, “He’s proposing to spend every dime of the resources available and, on top of that, to pay for something he calls his priority he wants to raise a tax.”

Dayton’s wide-ranging speech had areas of emphasis, including the preschool initiative that aims to enroll all four-year-olds in quality, tuition-free learning programs. He previously has held it out as a complement to an all-day kindergarten offering enacted in his first term, both of which fit with his belief that giving younger kids a jumpstart in structured classrooms will improve odds for lifelong achievement.

Minnesota has one of the country’s lowest rates of four-year-old enrollment in publicly-funded preschool programs, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education. Just 15 percent were enrolled during the 2012-2013 school year, far below the national rate of 41 percent and severely lagging neighboring Wisconsin and Iowa. Dayton’s $343 million plan would surely boost those numbers, though some lawmakers argue the money would be better used for scholarships for the neediest families than as a universal offering geared toward traditional public schools.

Peggy Bennett

Peggy Bennett

“We have a lot of private day cares and private preschools that would be destroyed by this,” said Rep. Peggy Bennett, a freshman Republican from a swing district and a veteran first-grade teacher. “We have a system that has been educating our children for many, many years and doing a good job at it. Why wouldn’t we include them in this plan?”

The preschool initiative will be in stiff competition with aid requests from elementary and secondary schools as well as higher education institutions trying to hold down tuition. And Republicans, who control the House, have designs on substantial tax cuts.

Minnesota has a projected $1.9 billion surplus for the coming two years, igniting tensions over whether to direct it to priority programs or slash taxes.

Hours before Dayton spoke, a collection of Republican lawmakers called for across-the-board income tax cuts that would reduce the rates in all four brackets by a half-percentage point. They would kick in for tax year 2016 but wouldn’t come cheap — $1.1 billion in the first 18 months alone.

Dayton has warned that cutting taxes so steeply would jeopardize the state’s fiscal health.

In his speech, however, Dayton refrained from taking on the GOP tax calls but opposed the idea that Minnesota’s taxes are too high.

“The state of our state is good. Not everywhere. Not for everyone,” Dayton said. “But overall, Minnesota is doing better than it has for some time, and Minnesota is doing better than most other states.”