Walz touts highlights of last session in State of State address in Owatonna

Published 6:06 am Wednesday, March 27, 2024

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Gov. Tim Walz took center stage in a southern Minnesota high school auditorium Tuesday night to highlight what he viewed as policy wins from the DFL trifecta — universal school meals, guaranteed access to reproductive care and new regulations on firearms — and ask for a few more before a “window of opportunity” closes.

The Democratic governor touted a laundry list of policy and spending changes approved last year and pointed to areas where lawmakers can “keep on making as much progress as we can.” The House and Senate are led by DFL majorities, one or both of which could be on the line in November.

“I don’t know how long this window of opportunity we’re in will stay open,” Walz said. “But I commit to you that we’ll do everything we can to improve the lives of Minnesotans and leave our state better than we found it.”

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Legislators, members of the judicial b ranch, tribal leaders and others made the drive to Owatonna for the speech, the sixth State of the State speech that Walz has delivered during his tenure in office.

While the governor urged bipartisan backing for workforce development and public construction projects, he also took aim at conservatives — especially those in power in other states — saying that Minnesota would gladly take their jobs and young people, but not their policies.

Here’s what stood out from the speech and what comes next.

Why did Walz head back to school?

The former geography teacher chose the Owatonna high school as a backdrop to highlight the building itself — with but next-generation hydroponics equipment, a nursing lab and a full commercial kitchen — and to hone his message around creating a state that sets kids up for success.

The school itself was a product of a public-private partnership and buy-in from taxpayers to support a bond referendum to help build it.

“This building is a factory, and what it manufactures is futures. You can see when you walk in here, the curb appeal is undeniable,” Walz said. “But this building wasn’t built for the looks for the first day of school, it was build for the last.”

He said district and business leaders saw a chance to connect offerings to high-need areas in the workforce, allowing students to leave school with a clear path to a career if they don’t head to college.

Walz said that route around gridlock is similar to one that Democrats took when they gained full Statehouse control in 2023.

“Every once in a while, you get an opportunity to make a whole lot of progress in a short amount of time. It happened here in Owatonna in 2019. And, after half a century of waiting it happened in St. Paul in 2023,” Walz said.

From there, he ticked down policies that lawmakers approved in 2023 that boosted Minnesota public schools, added mental health counselors, increased child care slots, made college free for some students and more.

Was there an overarching theme?

The overarching theme was that Democrats at the Capitol were able to pass a trove of new policy and spending provisions last year. And he urged them to build on that foundation this year.

Walz also sought to juxtapose the changes that Minnesota made in that time against his GOP peers across the country.

He emphasized new laws approved last year that expand firearm regulations, guarantee in law the right to an abortion or to gender-affirming care, and he said that lawmakers would work to safeguard infertility treatment like IVF this year in the face of an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that temporarily limited access there.

“We took action after Roe v. Wade fell, writing protections for reproductive freedom into our state laws, and making sure that people — not politicians — can make their own reproductive choices, including IVF,” Walz said, after sharing his family’s story of using IVF to start a family. “As long as I’m governor, IVF will continue to offer a lifeline of hope for Minnesota families.”

What did he ask lawmakers to accomplish in their remaining time?

On the whole, Walz didn’t lay out any objectives he hasn’t already discussed as priorities for the year.

Walz made an appeal to lawmakers to work across the political aisle to boost state funding for education and workforce development, as well as public construction projects.

While the policy priorities can move across the Capitol with just one party’s support, a capital investment bill takes a higher threshold of votes to let the state take on debt. That means Republicans have unique leverage in terms of what projects make the cut and what other conditions might come along with a capital investment bill.

“These initiatives will make an enormous difference in the real lives of real people across our state,” Walz said. “I know we won’t agree on everything. But safe streets? Clean water? Affordable housing? Surely we can agree on that.”

Walz and DFL legislative leaders have also proposed small changes to the state’s budget, including about $541 million more spending for the next three years geared toward emergency medical services, resolving a settlement dealing with forfeited property and topping off several budget areas.

What IS the state of the state, though (according to Walz)?

You would be shocked to hear that the governor said “the state of the state is strong” (again) but this time because “the kids of our state are better equipped to thrive.”

In the time-honored tradition of branding the state’s condition, “strong” man Walz leaned on that adjective he has used in EVERY one of these.

A “state of the state is” scorecard under Walz:

  • 2024: “Strong.”
  • 2023: “Strong and it’s getting stronger.”
  • 2022: “Strong and moving forward.”
  • 2021: “Strong, Minnesota.”
  • 2020: “Strong … resilient … united.”
  • 2019: “Strong. And we are at a crossroads.”

What did Walz’s allies say?

DFL leaders said the governor hit the nail on the head with his remarks, and they said the calls to wrap a supplemental budget, bonding bill and handful of new policy changes would buoy them through the end of the legislative session.

“The part of the speech that I liked the best is how he talked about how we have to begin with the end in mind,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “One day we will all walk out of the state Capitol for the last time and we will have to ask ourselves if the things we did while we were there were worthy of the people of Minnesota.”

The leaders said they expected that proposed gun restrictions that Walz highlighted would have a path through the Legislature this year.

How was it received by political adversaries?

Republicans said there were areas they agreed with — around efforts to support schools, prop up emergency medical services in rural Minnesota and build out local construction projects. But they said DFL policies hadn’t had the impact that Walz portrayed.

“Tonight the Governor played his top ten list, and like many hits, the tune has gotten a little stale,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.

While they appreciated that Walz brought up a GOP priority to raise the penalty for straw purchasers — those who provide firearms to those who can’t legally have them — they said they didn’t appreciate getting shut out of discussions about the bill.

“I think there’s ways we can find to work better together. House Republicans stand ready to do that,” House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, told reporters after the address. “We’ve got to be able to be invited to the table and not have our ideas potentially co-opted in a way that they shouldn’t be.”