Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz had some Republicans in mind while delivering his State of the State address Wednesday. They just weren’t the Republicans sitting in the House chamber in St. Paul.
The DFL governor, who began his second term in January, aimed some of his sharpest jabs at national Republicans, especially an unnamed fellow governor from Florida. He portrayed a Minnesota under the control of Democrats as a bulwark against the spread of “the forces of hatred and bigotry,” referring in part to anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies.
“But let me say it now, and let me say it clearly: That march stops at Minnesota’s borders,” Walz said.
Walz has gotten some national press attention because Minnesota’s DFL trifecta has been able to pass progressive bills on abortion access, transgender rights, carbon-free standards, free school lunches and breakfasts for all students and rental assistance. He has enjoyed positioning himself as the opposite of Republicans gaining national profiles such as Ron DeSantis of Florida. Though after saying he was going to do something un-Minnesotan, “talk about what we’re really talking about,” Walz didn’t talk about WHO he was really talking about, though he got close.
“I’ve seen some of these other governors on TV – they find a lot of time to be on TV – and they’re always talking about ‘freedom,’” he said. “But it turns out what they mean is that government should be free to invade your bedroom, your children’s locker room, and your doctor’s office.
“Here in Minnesota, when we talk about freedom, we talk about having your children be free to go to school without worrying about being shot dead in their schools,” Walz said.
And he kept after the unnamed DeSantis. “Look, I’m only the governor of this great state. It’s not up to me how folks in places like Florida go about their business. But I have to tell you, I’m pretty glad we do it our way and not their way,” Walz said. “They’re banishing books from their schools. We’re banishing hunger from ours.”
It is expected that governors and presidents use these addresses to proclaim their states and nations as strong. Walz didn’t disappoint. The DFL governor told a joint convention of the Legislature that the State of the State of Minnesota is strong, “and it’s getting stronger with every investment we make in our people and the futures they’re working so hard to build.
“But make no mistake: Minnesota’s strength isn’t just in our economy, or our schools, or our natural resources. Our strength also comes from our values,” Walz said, quickly returning to national themes, contrasting what he and legislative DFLers are doing with what “they” are doing. He cited restoration of voting rights to felons when they are released from incarceration, allowing undocumented immigrants the ability to get drivers licenses and the recognition of Juneteenth as a state holiday. He portrayed his agenda as evidence of “choosing the right fights.”
“Look, I get it, I get it,” Walz said. “Politicians want to be seen as ‘fighters.’ But what they don’t seem to understand is that it’s not enough to be a fighter. You have to choose the right fights. And if there’s one thing I hope folks in other states take away from what we’re doing here in Minnesota, it’s this: It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you stop complaining about corporations going ‘woke’ and start giving a damn about people’s real lives.”
It is more common for governors in other states to deliver these speeches at the beginning of the year and the beginning of legislative sessions. Walz gave an inaugural speech in January, and Minnesota governors have waited until months into sessions to give State of the State addresses.
That makes laying out an agenda seem late in the game. Walz tried it anyway with a recitation of his budget and tax policies — some already embraced in House and Senate budget bills, some missing. He made a pitch for rebate checks without specific dollar signs that would have reminded that House DFL checks are much smaller than what he proposed. His child care and child tax credits are different from what appears in that same House DFL taxes bill. And his plan to create a new state agency for children is alive but not thriving.
The biggest gap between his agenda and what is being pushed by legislative DFLers is in public safety.
“Of course, putting families first also means upholding our very first and most basic responsibility for all of us, keeping our communities safe,” Walz said. “That’s why our plan includes more than half a billion dollars in public safety funding for cities and counties across our state. That’s the single largest investment in Minnesota’s history. Whether it’s a surge in car theft or taking on the opioid epidemic, our first responders and law enforcement agencies they’ve got an awful lot to deal with – they should have every resource necessary to tackle the issues that face communities.”
Those grants have not yet appeared in legislative plans, though a Senate DFL tax plan that could hold them has not been unveiled. House DFLers assert that they increase state aid to cities and counties not just with one-time money this year but with more in future years. But Republican leaders noted the gap between what Walz asked for and what has so far been delivered in budget plans.
Walz shifted quickly from public safety to another pitch for gun safety measures, an issue that has zero GOP votes and that is struggling to find consensus among DFLers in the Senate.
“We all know damn well that weapons of war have no place in our schools, in our churches, in our banks or anywhere else people live their lives,” he said, to applause on the DFL and stillness on the GOP side.
“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” Walz said. “We’ve got a gun safety bill on the table. And we’re going to get it passed. And I’m gonna sign it. We’re going to have universal background checks. We’re going to have red flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of people. And we’re going to have lawful gun owners not be impinged upon one bit to continue doing what they’ve already done. If there’s anybody that doubts, anybody in America that doubts that we’re going to take meaningful action to protect our kids, I’ve got two words: Watch us.”
Walz ended with a rah-rah charge to DFL legislators and activists, something he described earlier in the week as akin to a half-time speech from the former high school assistant football coach.
“I want to take a minute and say thank you for the services that you’re providing on all of these issues and the service you provide to civic life in Minnesota,” he said. “ We’re drawing a roadmap for 49 other states by doing whatever it takes to become a state that works – for every single person.
“Let’s not waste the opportunity.”
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson from East Grand Forks noted the attention on DeSantis when he reacted to the speech.
“Ron DeSantis is probably off his Christmas card list at this point,” Johnson said. He went on to describe the speech as “a national campaign speech ignoring the needs of Minnesotans across the state.
“This was a big step backward,” Johnson said of the tone of the address. “I was looking for a unified message tonight, something that all Minnesotans could get behind. It seems the ambitions of the governor are national, and we’re starting to forget about the needs of Minnesotans.
“I wanted to hear about Minnesota’s needs but we kept hearing about Florida and different states that apparently he might be running against in the future,” Johnson said. And he said he found it ironic that Walz complained that Republicans favor government interference in people’s lives while the DFL is growing the size and scope of state government in their budgets.
House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth of Cold Spring said Walz should have recognized the death of police officer Joshua Owen who was killed in the line of duty over the weekend in Pope County. While Walz is proposing $550 million to help local police response, little of that has been proposed in the House and Senate public safety bills.
On gun safety, Demuth said Republicans fundamentally disagree with the red flag and background check bills.
“What Republicans and most Minnestoans are looking for is they are looking for criminals to be held accountable and keeping guns out of criminals’ hands,” she said.
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost.
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