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More than half of registered voters in Minnesota approve of the job Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is doing after his first full year in office, a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll found.

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed gave Walz a favorable review, while a quarter disapproved of the governor's performance. His marks are on par with former Gov. Mark Dayton's average approval rating during his eight years in office.

Respondents demonstrated clear preferences on a couple of leading controversies confronting Walz, with overwhelming opposition to copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and a slight majority in favor of marijuana legalization.

People's spending priorities were more mixed. About one-third of Minnesotans said that if state spending increases, lawmakers' top priority should be prekindergarten through 12th grade public education.

Education spending is likely to be a significant issue at the State Capitol in the current legislative session. Walz and House Democrats have cited early education and school lunches as priorities for any surplus budget dollars. And a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at closing the state's racial achievement gap has gained traction in the Legislature, though lawmakers have expressed reservations about the legal consequences.

Health care was a close second for spending priorities, with 29% of respondents saying that should be where the state should devote additional dollars. Republicans were most likely to want any additional spending to be targeted at health care. Democrats and independents were inclined to name K-12 education as their preferred spending focus.

Like many Minnesotans, Larry Sarver of Albert Lea describes himself as somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. Health care would be his top priority for additional dollars. Around Thanksgiving, Sarver, 73, had a heart attack.

"I've got insurance, but it's still going to put a helluva burden on me," said Sarver, who wants politicians to scrap the Affordable Care Act and work together on a replacement.

Transportation was the third most cited spending priority in the poll, with 14% of Minnesotans naming it as a top priority. A.J. Sonquist of Crystal is among them. As an exterminator, he spends his days driving to serve clients and knows how bad the state's roads can be.

"We need to invest both in roads and transit. I think we're just way far behind," he said. Sonquist, a Walz supporter, said the governor's idea of increasing the gas tax is long overdue, though he said Walz's original 20-cent-per-gallon proposal may have been too high of a starting point.

For Linda Loucks of Bovey that gas tax plan was one of the big reasons she opposes the job Walz is doing. Her family has run a bait and tackle shop for more than 70 years in the cabin country near Grand Rapids. Low gas prices are critical for their business, she said, noting that more people travel north to fish when it's cheap to fill up.

Loucks has two sons working in mining at the Hibbing Taconite plant. She was among the minority of poll respondents who said they support building new mines near the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, which she said would bring back areas "beaten down" by the loss of mining. The majority of people polled — 60% — said they generally oppose building new mines near the BWCA, while 22% supported the idea and 18% were undecided.

The Star Tribune/MPR News Poll was conducted Feb. 17-19 and included 800 registered Minnesota voters. Its margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The poll found Walz — who represented a wide swath of southern Minnesota in Congress before he was elected governor in 2018 — had the lowest support in southern Minnesota. While 65% of voters polled in Hennepin and Ramsey counties gave him favorable reviews, just 47% of southern Minnesota residents approved of his job performance. A little more than half of the residents of metro suburbs and northern Minnesota liked the job he was doing.

Walz's support was clearly split along party lines. He had a 78% favorability rating among Democrats, although another 19% of DFL voters said they were unsure how they felt about his job performance. Among Republicans, Walz had a 31% approval rating, somewhat higher than Dayton's 20% favorability among Republicans at the end of his last term.

People who categorized themselves as independents or had political allegiances outside the major parties gave Walz decent marks, with 56% supporting and one-quarter disliking the job he was doing.

Sarver, who had described himself as somewhere in the middle of the two parties, was frustrated by Walz. He would like the governor to rein in state spending and is frustrated by continuous tax increases. He also wants to see reform in education spending and raises in teacher pay.

Last year Walz and the politically divided Legislature passed a $48 billion two-year state budget that increased per-pupil education spending by 2% each year. This legislative session, the governor proposed long-term borrowing of $447 million for state colleges and universities in his public construction package. The money would pay for building maintenance and improvements at campuses across the state.

Sonquist, whose wife works in higher education, supports the additional dollars Walz is trying to devote to schools, including the college systems.

"I just think he's got his head in the right place," Sonquist said. "He wants to help and wants to treat everyone with equality."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044