Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called for one of the only divided Legislatures in the nation to come together and use a historic budget surplus to address the immediate and long-term needs of those hit hardest by the pandemic.
The DFL governor made a plea for unity before Democratic and Republican legislators Sunday night in his fourth State of the State address, returning to the Minnesota House chamber for the speech for the first time since the onset of coronavirus. The Capitol setting marked a return to some normalcy after broadcasting the speech remotely for the last two years.
"Moving forward doesn't mean giving up on the tough issues. It doesn't mean glossing over things we need to take care of. What it means is working together, like we have so many times, to solve those problems," Walz said. "We need to come up with solutions and then we need to get results for the people of Minnesota."
The final address of his first term, Walz's speech blended his reflections on the unprecedented events of the last three years with lobbying for his priorities at the Capitol this session. The state is sitting on a nearly $9.3 billion budget surplus, which Walz wants to use to boost classroom spending and improve access to child care while sending public safety grants to communities and direct tax rebate checks to Minnesotans.
He called for an end to gridlock between the DFL House and Republican Senate over replenishing the state's drained unemployment insurance fund and sending "hazard pay" to workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
"If we're getting close to a compromise on this, let's finish this deal and let's finish it now," Walz said, stressing that the pay for pandemic workers is long overdue and calling the unemployment insurance fund "one of the best antipoverty programs."
Reacting to his speech, Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said Walz needs to "show some leadership" on pushing Democrats in the Legislature to back his own position to pump $2.7 billion into the unemployment insurance trust fund.
"It's time for him to lean on Minnesota Democrats in the House and get that bill out there," Daudt said.
The governor used his invited guests sitting in the House gallery to illustrate his priorities, including nurse Mary Turner, who has spent nearly a year advocating for checks for frontline workers. He invited teachers to highlight the investment he wants to make in classrooms and a personal care assistant to talk about the need for higher wages to address workforce shortages hitting health care. He praised Minnesota Department of Health staff and commissioner Jan Malcolm, who has led his administration's response to COVID-19 and became a target of some Republican legislators.
"Around the clock, these employees are looking, working and trying to figure out where will COVID come from next and how do we make sure we're ahead of it before it happens," Walz said of health department staff.
Minnesota lawmakers have accomplished little so far this session ahead of the May 23 deadline to adjourn. Legislative leaders have widely diverging plans on how to spend the state's budget surplus to cut taxes and address rising violent crime.
Senate Republicans are proposing to spend more than $8 billion over the next three years to make permanent income tax cuts and eliminate state taxes on Social Security income. Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said Walz talked about cutting taxes for middle income Minnesotans but the governor railed against tax cuts for corporations and businesses, which Republicans hope to attract to the state.
"It was a very interesting speech, but I don't think much has changed," he said. "It's kind of what we've been hearing all along."
DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman said compromise, while challenging in divided government, still is possible, and Democrats share the priorities outlined in Walz's speech.
"He has a strong pro-worker, pro-family, pro-child agenda, and Democrats are united around the items in his agenda," she said.
Walz, a former high school teacher, also stressed Sunday night that after significant investments in education in the last budget, the state should do more in areas from early childhood to workforce training. To address crime, the state needs to tackle economic inequality, housing instability, gun violence and mental health and addiction, Walz said.
"If we really are serious about getting tough on crime, then we need to get serious about the causes of crime because that's where it begins," he said.
The governor is running for re-election in November after an unprecedented first term in office, one that largely will be defined by his managing of the pandemic and response to the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd's killing. More than a half dozen Republicans are angling for the chance to challenge him in November, arguing he abused emergency powers and overstepped in his response to COVID-19.
The governor's relationship with the Legislature was strained by the pandemic, but despite deep divides, Walz said he is hopeful Minnesota could be a leader and set an example for the nation on how to work through differences.
"The pandemic has caused rifts between all of us, it has caused rifts that seem almost insurmountable," Walz said. "My pledge to you is to try and listen, to try and work together and to try and heal those rifts."