Lawmakers say state of state is improving
Legislators generally agreed with Gov. Mark Dayton that jobs are a key priority this year, although some hoped to hear more specific policy ideas from him during his Wednesday night State of the State speech.
"He talked a lot about job creation, and that is truly the reason ... all legislators are here," Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, said.
Many lawmakers agreed with Dayton that while there still is work to be done, the state is headed in the right direction.
"We're in a state of recovery," Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said.
As Dayton said in his speech, unemployment numbers are starting to drop. People are spending a little more. Within the past year, the signs of an improving economy are starting to become evident, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said.
"We are starting to see a little inkling that the economy is moving forward," he said, adding, "we need to make sure to help and not hinder that."
Both DFL and Republican lawmakers could agree with some of Dayton's proposals.
"We all can agree that jobs are the No. 1 priority," Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said.
"It is my hope that we can work swiftly, in a bipartisan manner, to get these (jobs) policies passed so that we can begin getting Minnesotans back to work now, rather than later," Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said.
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said he was happy to hear the governor concur on the need for government reforms.
Dayton's focus on a bonding bill to fund public works projects also sat well with many legislators.
"I enthusiastically agree with the governor in urging the Legislature to pass a bonding bill early this session," Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said.
But Rep. Mark Murdock, R-Ottertail, noted that the governor said the state should stop borrowing money, but "bonding is borrowing."
There were disappointments Wednesday as well.
"It was a little bit short on policy proposals," Thompson said of Dayton's speech.
"I was hoping he would say he would not raise taxes, so that was disappointing," Murdock said.
Some said the governor remained divisive even while he promoted bipartisan efforts.
"He said 'let's work together,' and then he took shots at Republicans," Thompson said.
Lillie, the Senate GOP whip, said it has been a challenging session so far and he appreciated that the governor "tried to reach out" with his positive tone.
While Minnesota's shift toward growth is encouraging, there is still a distance to go before things are back to normal, lawmakers said. For example, unemployment numbers are improving but are still high.
"We're doing better than the national average, but the national average is not very good," Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said.
Businesses also still are struggling, lawmakers said, especially small ones.
"The fact that sales tax has not performed quite as we hoped shows me main street is not quite healthy," Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, said.
Hancock said there is a lot of uncertainty in the business community, much centered on health care changes, taxes and regulations.
But people are ready to make the most of a recovering economy, he added.
"The entrepreneurial spirit is there," Hancock said.
The changes and decisions made during July's special session improved the state's financial situation, Kelly said.
"The goal is to keep it going," he said. "We have the momentum, now I'm hoping we can build on it."
Last year's budget deal left the state with problems, Sieben said. Repaying schools after a funding shift that was part of the budget deal now is critical, she said.
Reinert agreed that education should be a focus during this legislative session.
"There's much to be done in this area, especially given the state's obligation to pay back the $2.1 billion K-12 school shift and the continual rise in college tuition costs around the state," he said.
The state is making progress on environmental issues, said McNamara, who chairs the House environment committee. For example, Minnesota recently took over gray wolf management from the federal government, a shift he called "a success story."
But the area still struggles with invasive aquatic species and Asian carp, among other environmental issues, he said.
More money is coming in from taxes that in the recent past, so "there are either more people working or people are making more money - we don't know which," Reinert said. Either is a good sign, he added.
"There is actually a ray of hope here," Kelly echoed.
Kelly also said while the special session was difficult, it strengthened reform efforts being championed by Republicans this legislative session.
Lourey applauded the governor's approach of tracing the state's history.
"Linking the past with the future was an effective way to break out of the mold and a way of getting people to think about what we're doing," Lourey said.
Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, was disappointed with the scope of Dayton's speech.
"He could have laid out a bigger vision for Minnesota, especially when it comes to energy needs," Howe said.