Dayton celebrates Minnesota's progress, diversity in final State of the State address

Just one year after collapsing during his State of the State speech, Gov. Mark Dayton opened his final address to both sessions of the Minnesota Legislature by joking about the incident, rewarded by attendees with a long laugh.

Dayton, however, managed to avoid a similar incident in his roughly 30 minute speech, sticking to his message of progress in trumpeting signature accomplishments like investments in all-day kindergarten and early learning programs, as well as a bonding bill that is set to provide well-needed funding for infrastructure projects. The state's finances were a point of emphasis in the governor's speech, saying at one point that his legacy would come to be defined by the state's fiscal stability.

He also highlighted his priorities for the state's future in what's shaping up to be a contentious election year, hoping for increased funding for the state's higher education system and "commonsense" gun control measures.

"[We made] important progress, but we have much more to do to ensure our state government better includes and serves the rich diversity of our state," he said. "I want to acknowledge all the important issues I did not address tonight, but my time is running out--so I must leave them to all of you."

Wednesday's speech was the eighth and final annual address by Dayton as he prepares to leave office next January, coming on the heels of a tumultuous year in state politics that saw Sen. Al Franken step down over a series of sexual misconduct allegations and the subsequent nomination of then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to fill his position. 

As the end of the Dayton era looms the state Legislature is in the middle of a busy session that will include the daunting task of conforming to a new tax code after a series of sweeping cuts were passed through Congress last year. 

After years of clashes with a Republican controlled legislature, Dayton pointed to higher taxes on the state's wealthiest earners as a key accomplishment that fueled much of the change he championed while in office. Beyond the sentiment, he warned his counterparts across the aisle from seeing tax cuts as the sole path to prosperity.

"If we, and our successors, preserve our state’s fiscal integrity and invest our present tax system’s revenues in even better education, infrastructure, and transportation, we will continue to offer better jobs, with higher incomes and other benefits to our residents," he said. "If we don’t, we won’t."

Republicans, for the most part, agreed that the state of Minnesota is strong--if for different reasons--saying the state will continue to gain strength after both federal and state tax cuts passed last year begin to take effect.

Sen. Majority leader Paul Gazelka, however, suggested that the two sides were at an impasse on other topics, including gun control measures the governor sees as a priority during his final year.

"When we're looking at safe and secure schools, we're going to focus on hardening the target," said Sen. Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. "But when you talk about guns on either side of that issue, the fact is that's just not going to get anywhere."

While Dayton closes out his final year with a substantial budget surplus and a nod from U.S. News and World report as the country's second best-run state, he says that many still aren't on board with his vision and the changing nature of Minnesota's demographics--with nearly 19 percent of the population now identifying as people of color. This acknowledgement, as well as the subsequent call to embrace the state's diversity, was met with thunderous applause. 

"That is a very different complexion from years ago, and some folks still resist the change," he said. "If we can educate them to move beyond racism, religious bigotry, and other hatreds, they will see that this new diversity is crucial to our state’s future success."

In his closing remarks, Dayton said pushing Minnesota forward through cooperation should be the legislature's main priority, with the Capitol building renovations serving as a prime example of what can be accomplished with bipartisanship. Despite having to literally clear out of the building at one point, lawmakers came together to improve the building for generations to come--a model that legislators should emulate in the future even after Dayton is gone. 

"Look at what we accomplished just by working together," he said to close out his address. "And just imagine what more we can do if we continue."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.