Political drama alert: With just a week left in a legislative session firmly controlled by DFLers, lawmakers will be hard-pressed to finish on time because of a hangup in one area — taxes.
Sit up and pay attention, especially if your household earns $140,000 or more in annual taxable income, or if you would feel the pinch of higher taxes on clothing, tobacco or alcohol.
Picture a giant freeway pileup at rush hour. As lawmakers rush to pass bills to fund government by the scheduled May 20 adjournment, they eventually will find themselves stalled and drumming their fingers, waiting for Gov. Mark Dayton and key legislators to iron out their differences on taxes.
Negotiations have started, but each side will hold out in hopes of securing an advantage from the ticking clock and building pressure.
Clear out some time to read a lengthening series of profiles on the big personalities. You already know the governor and may have started to learn more about House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senator Majority Leader Tom Bakk. Now you'd better bone up on "The Anns" — House taxes committee chair Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington and Senate tax reform leader Ann Rest of New Hope.
Both are smart veterans with definite, well-thought-out views. No one is giving in. Plan on a lot of talking and, eventually, a tussle that includes the big dogs in the DFL leadership.
Soon the press will be setting up for "the countdown." Feverish reporting will portray fretful leaders shuttling back and forth between closed-door conclaves. Journalists will camp out, awaiting word of a last-minute deal, then everyone will sprint to clear the debris, speed massive legislation on its way and marvel at the dramatic conclusion.
This is all conjecture, of course. But it's the probable future I'm piecing together from visiting with lawmakers at the Capitol.
Here's another hunch. As May 20 approaches, a popular theme will be earnest — and not-so-earnest — questions about why DFLers are at each other's throats.
Does state policymaking work no more smoothly under one-party DFL rule than it did in the government-shutdown years when Republicans shared power?
Let's dig in on this and try to make sense of what may seem nonsensical from afar.
First, don't be blinded by the Klieg lights being shined on the DFL's disagreements. One-party rule is finding spacious stretches of common ground.
The DFLers will pass a tax bill that will bring in well more than $1 billion in new revenue over the next two years. It will be an increase large enough to, you might say, tax the adjective supply of editorial writers — and of Republicans launching fire-tipped press releases.
Whatever else it does, DFL government will enact Dayton's signature fourth-tier income tax increase on the highest-earning 2 percent of Minnesotans.
What's more, DFL government agrees that much of the new revenue should be plowed into boosting spending on education — from early childhood education and all-day kindergarten through higher education.
Taking in the raft of new DFL laws, a well-placed lawmaker compared it to the so-called Minnesota Miracle from the 1970s — "It's the new 'Good Ol Days.' "
'Fairness' vs. 'stability'
OK, you may be wondering, then why all the delay and debate? Two words — politics and philosophy.
Even as the 2012 election starts to fade from memory, the governor and the DFL House majority are focused, laserlike, on prevailing in their 2014 re-election contests. The Senate doesn't face voters until 2016.
This makes it easier for the Senate to take political risks and think long-term. Or, as a House lawmaker tartly put it, to project a "self-inflated sense of policy purity."
Senators seek a "stable" tax structure — one that broadens who and what is taxed to produce a reliable stream of cash to pay for government services. It would get the state off the deficit roller-coaster of the past dozen years.
To that end, Senate plans would broaden the individual income tax increase to boost rates on Minnesotans in the top 7 percent of income earners. And they would broaden the sales tax to include clothing and some services purchased by consumers while reducing its overall rate and exempting governments from paying it. Business tax breaks would also be tackled.
Meanwhile, the governor and House DFLers fly under the progressive flag of "fairness" — they insist that tax hikes be more concentrated on the rich after decades of rising disparities that hurt and displeased middle- and lower-income Minnesotans. Dayton was willing to entertain a sales tax expansion that also roped in businesses, but after that was torpedoed, he dug in his heels against hitting consumers alone.
The House, also rejecting the broader sales tax, adds an alcohol tax and a temporary income tax surcharge on the wealthiest Minnesotans to finish repaying money owed schools after the last round of budget cuts when Republicans were in power.
Pause here to ask: Is this DFL disagreement over what constitutes good public policy a sign of the all-too-familiar odious train wreck of stalemate? Or is it important, substantive debate? Would you welcome a bit more of this kind of internal battling over policy among Republicans?
Back to our story.
The House and the governor reinforce their progressive policy arguments with opinion polls showing that voters also support their proposals and oppose the Senate's.
Did I mention that the Senate doesn't face voters until the far-off date of 2016?
The Senate's political response is partly patronizing — in effect, "Suck it up and stop complaining." But it is also grounded in a long-term concern and an argument about how to pre-empt and fence in the next Republican majority or governor.
The Senate proposals seek to make changes in the structure of the tax code that would be difficult — perhaps politically impossible — to reverse. That would improve the chances of a steady stream of needed revenue for years to come, whatever elections may bring.
Would future Republican officeholders raise the general sales tax rate to restore the exemption to clothing and services? Would they require local governments to pay sales taxes, and revive tax loopholes for businesses?
Well-placed DFL lawmakers in both chambers agreed — as one put it — that "these would not come back. We can lock in new streams of revenue that never go away."
Senate lawmakers mock the fleeting effects of the House's temporary surcharge. One asked: "Where is the vision of tax reform that looks out 10 years and doesn't regret missing a rare opportunity to change the tax structure?"
But never fear: The DFL will resolve these differences. The big political question is whether agreeing to pass one of the largest tax increases in recent state history will prove to be a political suicide pact for 2014.
Many Republicans are gleeful that they may be able to distract attention away from their own internal discord over how far right to move on fiscal and social issues and effortlessly come together around heartfelt attacks on "tax-and-spend" Democrats — a theme that also will appeal to independents.
DFLers may be whistling past the graveyard, but they are counting on something akin to a "Reverse Rove." George W. Bush's political guru Karl Rove famously pushed a decade ago for conservative tax and social policies to lift GOP turnout. The DFL believes that boosting taxes and targeting spending to education will rally the base and impress swing voters with a commitment to "fairness" and to "getting something done" to "clean up state finances" after the GOP made a mess of them.
But the DFL base and Minnesota's swing voters may not march to the same beat. Whether the DFL is swept out of office next year may depend on party leaders striking a balance on income and sales taxes changes over the coming days — a balance that conveys fiscal responsibility rather than what Republicans will eagerly describe as "overreach" and "wasteful spending."
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.