Walz uses 1st State of the State to call for 'new story'
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Tim Walz used his first State of the State speech on Wednesday night to call on Minnesota to “write a new story” about how a government divided between Democrats and Republicans can put aside ideology and come together for the good of the people.
The Democratic governor told lawmakers that the state of the state is “strong.” And he used his speech to share the stories of eight special guests watching from the House gallery to put human faces on the policy debates underway at the Capitol, highlighting education, health care and transportation.
“We are at a crossroads,” Walz told the country’s only Legislature in which Democrats and Republicans control different chambers. “We can choose to follow the same story that was written ahead of time, we can choose to decide who belongs or who doesn’t, we can choose to let ideology drive us before people, or we can do what Minnesota’s always done. Rise up and create a better way of life. Lead the nation in how things could get done.”
The governor’s guests included Will Handke and Ross Pomeroy, twin brothers who were his students when he taught at Mankato West High School. They later started a company that sells natural snack bars sold nationwide. Walz used their story to highlight the need to invest in education.
Walz also recognized Goodhue County dairy farmer Deborah Mills, whose family had to go without health insurance because it became too expensive. He used their story to press the importance of access to health care to lawmakers who are deeply divided on whether to renew a tax on health care providers that’s due to expire at year’s end. Democrats say it’s necessary to preserve the tax to help fund health programs, while Republicans say it pushes up health care costs.
And the governor used the emotional story of his close friend and longtime neighbor, Mary Ingman, the mother of a Mankato family who lost their father in a crash on U.S. Highway 14 shortly before Christmas 1996, to emphasize the urgency of improving the safety of the state’s transportation system. Walz was coaching middle-school basketball players when two state troopers walked in with a crying Ingman to tell her son, Ben, that his father, Charlie, died in the head-on crash.
Walz and the House Democratic majority want to raise the state’s gas tax by 20 cents and enact other fee and tax increases to provide additional money for roads, bridges and public transit. The Senate GOP majority says those increases aren’t needed when the state is facing a projected $1 billion budget surplus.
“That same highway has killed 145 people in the last three decades. It is the most dangerous in Minnesota,” Walz said. “My passion is not to pick a fight with you about transportation. My passion is to make sure … that we do something together.”
GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the governor delivered an encouraging message. He said Republicans share many of his goals but have different ideas for how to achieve them. The “great debate” of the session will be over whether it’s necessary to raise taxes, he said.
“We are committed to talking about every issue — whether it’s transportation or education or heath care, local government aid or broadband. All of the issues he talked about are issues that we care about as well because we know that Minnesota cares about them. So if he’s committed to negotiating in good faith, we certainly are, and I really do believe we’ll get there.”
Democratic leaders also expressed optimism for reaching the difficult agreements needed to end the session by the May 20 deadline.
“We know we’re going disagree,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said. “The question is whether we have a willingness to compromise and put things on the table that will actually help the state move forward. And I do think that there’s every expectation and every reason for an expectation that we will finish this budget on time, get done and do good things for the people of Minnesota.”
Walz — who took the rare step of mostly winging a State of the State speech without a script — drew on his experience as a high school football coach to try to send lawmakers back onto the field with a new game plan for doing that.
“Let’s write our own story,” he urged them. “Let’s write a new story how this can end. Let’s do this in a way that others can look at and say ‘That’s the way out of this.’ And let’s do it because Minnesotans, we’ve always done it before. We’ve never feared the future, we create the future’ Let’s go write the story.”