Five strong candidates to succeed R.T. Rybak as Minneapolis mayor went through their paces at a Humphrey School debate last week. Six candidates are expected to show their stuff at a League of Women Voters forum Wednesday night.
Count me as one state political junkie who will be watching for signs that the candidates understand the strategic implications of so many serious contenders in an election that will be decided by ranked choice voting. That's the new voting method that's in place in Minneapolis and St. Paul, touted by its advocates as able to bring more civility and centrism to politics.
In Minneapolis, the mayoral contest is likely to remain well populated all the way to November. Ranked choice voting has eliminated the primary election. Come Nov. 5, the victor may well be the candidate who is most successful at snagging second- and third-place votes.
That's how Jeanne Massey of FairVote Minnesota assesses the situation. "Courting second- and even third-place votes will be the way to win," FairVote's executive director told me this week. "Just turning out your own base won't cut it."
Ranked choice voting gives voters the opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference. In a field of three or more candidates, the winner is the candidate able to amass enough first-choice votes plus second- or third-choice votes from last-place candidates to surpass the 50 percent threshhold.
Minneapolis voters approved a change to ranked choice voting in 2006, and used the system for the first time in 2009. But that wasn't a strong test. Rybak coasted to an easy victory in 2009 in a large but weak field of opponents. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who is expected to make his bid for a third term official this week, appears to occupy a similarly advantageous position in his city's ranked choice voting mayoral election this year.
But the mayoral race in Minneapolis is wide open, and chances are good that the DFL Party will fail to endorse a candidate. It should be the race to watch to assess whether ranked choice voting alters campaigning for the better, as its exponents predict.
To win second-choice votes, candidates will need to avoid harsh attacks on their rivals. They'll need to address themselves to the whole electorate, not a narrow interest group. They will have reason to campaign in all parts of the city, not just their home turf.
"Candidates can't afford to write off any voters," Massey said. "That's the beauty of ranked choice voting." If it looks as good as she predicts, legislation that stalled this year to guide other cities to adopt ranked choice voting should win the 2014 Legislature's blessing.
A temporary surcharge on high-income taxpayers made an unexpected debut at the Capitol Tuesday as leaders of the House DFL majority unveiled their broad-brush plan for balancing the 2014-15 state budget. They propose to employ that tool, last seen in Minnesota in 1982, to erase the remaining $854 million owed to the state's schools from the budget-balancing "shifts" of 2009-11.
The surcharge House DFLers envision would fall only on "the very wealthiest Minnesotans" and would be designed to automatically end, or "blink off," when the school debt is fully repaid. That could occur as soon as eight months from now if the next state budget forecast shows a sufficient surplus. Current law commits mid-biennium surpluses to school debt repayment.
Partisan skepticism greeted the notion of a blinking tax. "Nothing is more permanent than a temporary tax," said House GOP minority leader Kurt Daudt.
But history says otherwise. The 1982 surcharge, which started at 5 percent and grew to 10 percent as the state faced recurring deficits, blinked off in early 1984 as the economy rebounded and the state's finances stabilized. Unlike the new idea, that surcharge applied to all income tax payers at the same percentage level.
The surcharge hasn't blinked back on since. But the Republican governor who initially allowed it to become law without his signature was already recommending another blinking surcharge in September 2008 as a way to cope with the rapidly unfolding Great Recession. His words at the Humphrey Institute that day weren't heeded. In retrospect, they seem prescient and wise:
"Don't wait until we're completely out of recession to increase taxes. People start thinking you can get along without that money. That's not good. The state has a responsibility to carry out the work society has given it. The longer you delay, the more damage you do to that work."
Gov. Mark Dayton wasted no time on pleasantries as he addressed several hundred Minnesota Chamber of Commerce members Wednesday, the day before his expected release of a revised state budget plan.
The DFL governor's business critics won Round One of this year's Great State Tax Debate last week, when they got him to concede defeat on a proposal to apply the state sales tax to business services. With that proposal gone, also axed are Dayton's plans to reduce the state sales tax rate, send homeowners $500 apiece in property tax rebates and extend the sales tax to clothing. A lower corporate income tax rate, something for which businesses gave him no credit during Round One, evidently has also been withdrawn.
That leaves an income tax increase for the state's top earners and a cigarette tax increase, Dayton said at the Chamber's Day at the Capitol luncheon in St. Paul. He conceded defeat on one thing more -- a plan to tax "snowbirds" who spend at least six months and one day in another state each year and thereby avoid income tax liability in Minnesota. (Update: I spoke too soon about the snowbird tax. He kept it in his revised budget, released Thursday, but acknowledged that it poses difficulty for Minnesota's summer tourism industry and faces an uphill fight at the Legislature.)
It also kicks off Round Two -- and Dayton's at times stern Chamber address suggests that he intends to play a more aggressive game. He's ready to fight for higher taxes for the sake of improving investment in education, particularly early and higher education, he indicated. He challenged his plan's critics to employ facts, not anecdotes and impressions, as they make their case.
He distributed a six-page handout of charts and graphs containing facts he deems relevant. Among them: Per $1,000 of personal income, Minnesota's total state and local tax burden ranks a respectable 15th, down from 8th in 1996. State and local government revenues as a percentage of total state personal income are projected to decline under his budget to 15 percent in 2015 from a 1994 high of 17.9 percent. Minnesota job growth in 2012 outstripped that of all but 11 other states, including the nation's four lowest tax states (the lowest of which is South Dakota).
Maybe more pertinent in coming weeks: In response to a questioner's complaint that higher income taxes hammer small businesses, Dayton said only 6 percent of the state's businesses that pay taxes via the personal income tax earn enough to qualify for the higher rate he favors. His proposal will mean higher taxes for only 54,000 Minnesotans. Their average taxable incomes are $645,000 a year, he said.
If Dayton stays as feisty as he was Wednesday, those are numbers that Minnesotans will hear often in the two months that remain of the 2013 legislative session.
The dustup over University of Minnesota administrative staffing generated by a December Wall Street Journal report appears to be settling in the university's favor at the Capitol. President Eric Kaler presented the preliminary findings of a comparative study of staffing levels to a state House panel Monday, and was met with few questions in response.
Legislators seemed more interested in clamping down tuition. About that, where the university is concerned, the Legislature faces a major impediment -- the state Constitution. It gives the Board of Regents broad power to govern the institution. That includes sole authority to set tuition. (State government has more to say about the governance of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which have legal status comparable to a state agency.)
The University of Minnesota staffing report, presented in draft form to the Board of Regents last week, found that the university's administrative layers are typical of comparable higher education institutions. But in three of four administrative units studied, the averge number of employees per supervisor was deemed lower than optimal.
Gov. Mark Dayton made his proposed $80 million biennial boost in university funding contingent on the findings of that study. Dayton is expected to say more about his budget on Wednesday, and may announce then whether he's satisfied with the report and Kaler's expressed desire to use it as a roadmap for additional cost-saving measures.
Members of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee appeared to be more interested in Kaler's offer to recommend tuition freezes to the Board of Regents in each of the next two years if the Legislature appropriates an additional $42.6 million in the coming state biennium. Legislators questioned whether they can require a freeze regardless of how much the state spends. Committee chair Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, asked Kaler to tell the committee later this week what would likely happen to tuition if the Legislature rejects Dayton's recommended increase.
Legislators should think twice before challenging the university's constitutional autonomy. A court fight would likely ensue that would do the reputations of both institutions no good. Kaler, who has been in office for 20 months, seems keen to drive down administrative costs and avoid tuition increases while preserving academic quality. Rather than picking a fight, legislators would do well to help Kaler achieve a goal they share.
The home foreclosure explosion that triggered the Great Recession caused damage that reached deep into Minnesota communities. So says a new report, "The Wall Street Wrecking Ball," released last week by a coalition of religious and grassroots social justice organizations backing foreclosure reform legislation at the Capitol this year.
In Hennepin County alone, the report says, the total decline in home values due to 50,507 foreclosures from 2008 to 2012 topped $8.75 billion. Worth noting is that the loss in valuation of homes in proximity to foreclosed properties exceeds that of the foreclosed homes themselves by nearly 2 to 1.
In addition, the costs to taxpayers and lost tax revenue associated with foreclosure during that four-year period cost local governments in Hennepin County nearly $525 million.
Those numbers for a single county help explain why last year's $26 billion settlement between the nation's five largest mortgage companies and 49 state attorneys general was decried as inadequate.
The report notes that foreclosure levels in 2013 remain three times higher than they were before 2008. That's why the coalition led by Minnesotans for A Fair Economy, Jewish Community Action and ISAIAH has renewed its push for state action to help homeowners avoid foreclosure when they fall behind on their mortgages. The bill's centerpiece: A requirement of face-to-face mediation between homeowners and lenders before foreclosures can proceed.
Legislators are bound to hear from the best lobbyists the banking industry can buy in opposition. They should also hear this: A mediation requirement before foreclosure has ample precedent in Minnesota. It was instrumental during the farm crisis of the mid-1980s in keeping hundreds of family farmers in operation. That 1986 measure had its roots in a two-year foreclosure moratorium pushed into law by Gov. Floyd B. Olson in 1933.
State responses to those crises reflected and reinforced Minnesotans' faith in each other and in democratic government. This year's Legislature can decide whether the same will be said one day of this state's response to the Great Recession.