Minnesota’s western neighbors frequently plaster mountain goat or badlands tourist advertisements on television and smartphone screens, buses and billboards. For years, they drew little more than a rant from the state’s political leaders.
This is not the case today.
“It drives me crazy when I see ads from South Dakota,” Gov. Tim Walz says. He wants to persuade Minnesotans to talk more about Minnesota life and has his own publicity blitz in mind.
“I’m going to run ads in Florida for teachers,” Walz said in a recent conversation with the Star Tribune about the state’s economy and policy choices.
“‘Come here! Yeah, it’s a little colder,’ he said, nodding at the window on a day of single-digit temperatures. “But we will let you teach.
This shot at the Sunshine State’s ban on teachers discussing sexual orientation or gender identity seems emblematic of its desire to infuse quality of life arguments with a progressive edge.
“If you’re going to move to Minnesota, you’re going to get a high quality education,” Walz said. “If you move to Minnesota, you’ll have access to the arts.”
Nearly three years into the pandemic, employers in Minnesota are in need of staff. The state’s workforce of 3 million is about 3% smaller than it was at the start of the pandemic.
A long-awaited “silver tsunami” of retired baby boomers has swept through. Birth rates have fallen every year since 2007, and the workforce can now disperse across the country – including to warmer or less taxed places – to work remotely.
Plus, there’s the clarion call for social justice after the murder of George Floyd.
Amid it all, freshly re-elected and running a state with a $17 billion surplus over its $54 billion two-year budget, Walz said he doesn’t see a breakdown in optimism in the state. ‘State.
“We just went through a pretty intense campaign, I mean, at the end my closing argument was, ‘They’re rooting against Minnesota. I’m rooting for Minnesota,’” he said. “And I think the public talked about it, that they wanted that optimistic view, and we got it.”
But he also hinted that the circumstances might call for grabbing tools — including tax cuts and direct business incentives — that are rarely used by Democrats in Minnesota.
“I’ve never denied that tax policy is part of it,” Walz said. “I often say, ‘You get what you pay for.’ Minnesotans pay a little more, they get a little more. [But] if they don’t get that extra bit, then they have the right to ask, ‘What can we do differently?'”
In a follow-up email, a spokeswoman for the governor said full details would be revealed next month in his budget proposal.
In the interview, Walz didn’t just talk about diverting teachers from red states to Minnesota, where, in his own words, “you don’t want to have to deal with ‘don’t say gay’ laws.” He also alluded to the Red River Women’s Clinic, an abortion provider, which moved from Fargo east of its namesake in Moorhead, Minnesota. And he touted the state’s history as a haven for struggling people looking to improve their lives.
“We have boundary waters. We have a high quality of life,” Walz said. “But I think one of the things is that we’ve always welcomed immigrants and refugees.”
During the gubernatorial campaign, Republican candidate Scott Jensen, along with his running mate, former NFL player Matt Birk, posted billboards around the Twin Cities with the slogan “Safe Streets.”
While Walz pointed out that the state’s crime level ranks among the safest in the nation, he acknowledged that criticism always stings.
“It was one of the draws here,” Walz said. “If you move to Minnesota, you’ll be safe.”
Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Jobs and Economic Development, said Minnesota leaders shouldn’t be on the defensive of a booming economy.
“I mean 13 months of job growth. We created over 17,000 jobs last month. The lowest unemployment rate in the country,” said Grove. “There’s a reason Minnesotans are optimistic.”
Grove looked to the second quarter of 2023 to find out when Minnesota will fully return to pre-pandemic employment levels. It takes about 35,000 more people to reach that level. Minnesota has historically low unemployment rates, with Mankato leading the nation with a rate of 1.3% this fall.
Minnesota has long touted its major concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities — from Target to Best Buy to General Mills and UnitedHealth Group. But in Minneapolis and St. Paul, downtown office towers are grappling with vacancies as the work-from-home lifestyle is now the norm with many employers.
“I think about this realignment of a large urban area,” Walz said. “When 30,000 Target employees are no longer downtown, what about the dry cleaners? What about the bars and pubs?”
The Minnesota formula, Walz and Grove said, remains tested and proven: Attract talent with the state’s highly skilled labor pool and high-quality infrastructure backed by high taxes. The state workforce is the third most educated in the country (49% of adults have a post-secondary degree).
Yet Minnesota’s recipe for education and infrastructure may no longer suffice in an environment characterized by aggressive competition for workers (and employers) across states.
“We’re in the realm of states that have natural assets,” Grove said, noting that states like Georgia and Alabama have spent billions on business incentives. “If we stay here, you’re going to get passed pretty quickly.”
One concern Walz won’t have over the next few months will be Republicans in St. Paul. For the first time in nearly a decade, Democrats will have control of the Legislative Assembly and the governor’s office, which means party priorities – driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants to pursue an incentive program for low-carbon cars — might be politically more tenable.
And while he avoided interstate grudge matches beyond friendly football reprimandthe governor – who himself came from one of these western states (Nebraska) decades ago to teach – has dug his way into the collective DNA enough to understand that emboldening a Minnesotan is often more effective through flattery than through fault-finding.
“It’s fact-based, but there’s a bit of Minnesota exceptionalism about it that we don’t have to go that far,” Walz said, speaking about what he called a form of outdated thinking. “‘People will come here because we’re Minnesota. We’re not Sioux Falls or anywhere else.’ As you see now, that’s not quite true.”
As other states spend more on economic development, the governor said Minnesota can no longer afford to go above and beyond. Although he hasn’t sketched out a poster campaign featuring loons and a lighthouse, he’s eager to get in on the fray.
“I’m asking our team to be bold,” Walz said.
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