National anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is looking to strengthen his grip on Minnesota's tax debate as the state heads toward a dramatic budget showdown.
Norquist's Washington-based group, Americans for Tax Reform, created a separate Minnesota political-action fund early this month to support like-minded candidates, campaign finance records show.
The new group, Americans for Tax Reform Political Fund, was taking shape even as Democratic legislative candidates won surprising and wide-reaching victories that tilted control of the Legislature into DFL hands. Coupled with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, Democrats suddenly find themselves with significant opportunities to overhaul the tax code and raise revenue in ways not possible in years under GOP control of the governor's office and more recently, the legislative branch.
Democrats expect to face fierce opposition from the anti-tax wing of the GOP as it positions itself to reclaim power.
"Strap yourself in, it's going to be a wild ride," said Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, which is modeled after Norquist's group.
Norquist is a leading national opponent of tax hikes and architect of an anti-tax pledge signed by thousands of state and national politicians, including more than 30 mostly Republican Minnesota legislators.
State legislators who have signed the pledge include outgoing House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, and Senate Minority Leader-elect David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Norquist's influence in Washington may be on the wane in the wake of President Obama's re-election, with a number of congressional Republicans skittering away from Norquist and their pledges this week as they confront the reality of the looming "fiscal cliff," a menu of tax hikes and spending reductions that will kick in unless Democrats and Republicans can find common ground on a deal.
Norquist's pledge could have more impact at the state-level, where governments such as Minnesota are required by law to balance their budgets.
Norquist's office did not respond to a request for an interview, but Krinkie welcomes the added support.
Though the economy is rebounding, many legislators expect state budget officials to announce a new deficit of at least $1 billion when the new state economic forecast is released next week. That would be on top of the more than $2.4 billion the state borrowed from K-12 schools that also must be repaid.
Krinkie and many Republicans say they expect Dayton to offer several proposed tax increases rather than deeper reductions. Dayton successfully campaigned on a pledge to raise income taxes on high earners, a proposal the GOP-controlled Legislature successfully blocked the past two years.
Minnesota Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said it makes little sense to rule out tax hikes.
"If you've got fiscal problems and you are not going to take one of the tools out of the toolbox and use that tool, even though it makes sense, even though everybody agrees we should use it, then you are not going to be a very effective problem solver," he said.
Some legislators say pledges like Norquist's have outlived their usefulness.
"When people are new, you don't deeply understand the breadth of situation and aren't quite as thoughtful as when you get more information," state Rep. Ann Lenczewski, a Bloomington DFLer who is incoming chairwoman of the House Taxes Committee.
Lenczewski was among a handful of Democrats who signed Norquist's pledge in the late 1990s, back when they were new and the state enjoyed a historic multibillion-dollar surplus.
Since then, Lenczewski has authored and supported various tax hike proposals.
"People want a balanced approach," Lenczewski said. "Otherwise these elections wouldn't be so close all the time."
Baird Helgeson • 651-925-5044