Walz vows to make Minnesota ‘best state in country for kids’

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Gov. Tim Walz vowed Monday to put children and classrooms at the forefront in his second term, seizing on a "historic opportunity" with a massive budget surplus to make the largest investments in education in state history.

"My mission as governor is simple: make Minnesota the best state in the country for kids," Walz said at his inauguration ceremony at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. "This is what I have charged my team to do — to make our state the best place to raise a family."

The DFL governor used his swearing-in to look back on his first term and preview his ambitious plans for the next four years, using the historic $17.6 billion budget surplus to fund classrooms, end child poverty, enact a paid leave program and send tax rebate checks to Minnesotans. He plans to release his two-year budget on Jan. 24.

"Education can truly be the great equalizer," said Walz, a former teacher whose experience in the classroom prompted him to run for governor. "Minnesota has some of the best schools in the country — but there are disparities that we desperately need to address."

He'll have allies to help make that agenda a reality as Democrats take over control of the House and Senate in the legislative session that convenes Tuesday. Walz's second term will give Democrats their longest continuous hold over the executive branch in state history, following eight years of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

The governor used his speech to reiterate his 2018 campaign mantra of "One Minnesota," calling for unity even as his party takes over full control of state government.

"That doesn't mean we're all the same or that we all agree, but we can work across lines of differences to do what's right, what's fair," Walz said.

Walz managed to strike two budget deals in his first term and worked with Republicans and Democrats to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of his top priorities languished under divided government.

Negotiations with Republicans imploded last spring over a sweeping plan to spend the surplus on tax cuts and new spending for schools, health care and public safety. In his address, Walz implored legislators to finish their work in a timely fashion.

"The era of gridlock is over," Walz said. "Minnesotans have chosen. They chose hope over fear, they chose fact over fiction, and they chose action over excuses."

Republicans will be cast into the minority when the 2023 session convenes but they're ready to go on the attack if Democrats consider any tax increases at a time when the state is flush with extra cash. They've said there could be areas where they find agreement with Democrats on tax cuts, as well as new funding for education and public safety initiatives.

"Minnesotans are being overtaxed, money that could be kept within Minnesotan families to help with high grocery prices and high energy bills," said House Republican Minority Leader Lisa Demuth after the surplus announcement.

The Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division's brass quintet played before the proceedings began and faith leaders offered prayer and sermon throughout the ceremony. Among those at the ticketed event were U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, who endorsed Walz for re-election.

Walz handily won a second term in November alongside Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation, who remains the highest ranking Native American official elected to state office in the country. Minnesota's other statewide officials also took the oath of office Monday, including Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julie Blaha. The two narrowly won re-election after a bruising midterm campaign.

Democrats will again hold all of Minnesota's statewide offices, but Blaha reminded those in the audience that the state remains divided. She won re-election by fewer than 8,500 votes.

"We still have division, things are still close," Blaha said. "It forces us to make sure we are reaching out and connecting."

Leaders reflected on the tumultuous events that marked the last four years. The state went through the pandemic, the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd's killing and subsequent trials for the officers involved.

Ellison noted his mother was with him four years ago when he was sworn in but she has since died due to complications from COVID-19. Flanagan also lost her brother to COVID, and both her parents died during her first term in office.

"The last four years have shown us that we don't know what will happen the next four years," Ellison said.

Secretary of State Steve Simon, who was sworn into his third term, won re-election by the highest vote total of any statewide office holder in November. He now wants lawmakers to enact automatic voter registration and pre-registration for high school students, along with restoring voting rights to felons on probation.

"Democracy was on the ballot and Minnesotans spoke clearly," he said. "They sent us a message and they gave us direction."

Joel Heller drove from Duluth to St. Paul with his son for Monday's inauguration. He wanted the 16-year-old to witness history. Heller, who knows Walz through his work with the DFL and veterans, stopped by a Capitol reception afterward, hoping for a couple of photos with the governor before returning north.

He also has big hopes for Walz's second term. Eliminating the state Social Security tax for most Minnesotans and free school lunches are at the top of his list.

"We're scraping by out in greater Minnesota," Heller said. "Mind you, the governor has done a wonderful job, he's making it easier for us to live. But it's still a struggle out there."