ST. PAUL, Minn. — Several upcoming events on the calendar could help energize campaigns for Minnesota governor and legislative offices, driving the messages voters will hear from candidates and their allies over the next two months.
For Democrats, back-to-school week brings a chance to brag about the launch of statewide all-day kindergarten where parents aren't hit with fees or school districts don't have to absorb costs of the extra classroom time. Over the next month, thousands of homeowners, renters and farmers will receive property tax refund checks from the state because of expanded eligibility and new money the Democratic-led Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton designated for those programs.
"We made a lot of great strides this year and people more and more are seeing the tangible results of that," said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. "It does make an impression on people."
For Republicans, the anticipated release in early October of health insurance premium information will focus new attention on the problem-riddled MNsure, Minnesota's virtual storefront for buying insurance that people are required to carry under federal law. And a quarterly update on tax collections due around the same time could give the GOP fodder to raise doubts about the health of the state budget — or rob them of a talking point.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the fact five of the past six monthly revenue reports have come in below the mark spells trouble.
"They've taken a recovery and turned it into a flat-line at best," Daudt said of Democrats. "It's not me looking for a storm cloud. It's an absolute fact and the realities of the policies they've put in place not working."
Democrats are in defense mode as the party tries to retain the governor's office, a U.S. Senate seat and total control of the Legislature. Republicans, lacking any foothold of state political power, are attempting to push nominee Jeff Johnson past Dayton and retake the state House. The top-of-the-ticket contests will get the most attention between now and Nov. 4, but who snags the House majority will have a big bearing on what gets accomplished when the next session starts in January.
Dayton and House Democrats hope voters will appreciate investments in education, from preschool through college, even if it took tax increases to get there. Universal all-day kindergarten is the signature piece. Increased state funding is meant to get rid of a patchwork where some schools offered the full-day to kindergartners at district expense while others didn't bother or had parents pay as much as $2,500 to get their children more than half-day.
Denise Specht, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union, regards it as the biggest change to education in a generation and said it will get young learners off on the best foot. The union is running television ads highlighting the program's introduction that don't directly connect the political dots. But Specht said the spots are meant to highlight what happens when more money is spent on schools.
"I hope what this ad will do is open up a conversation about what's next," she said, calling for added preschool funding and moves to reduce elementary school class sizes.
On property taxes, lawmakers made more people eligible for enhanced tax credits that are supposed to buy down what people owe, depending on their income. An estimated 500,000 homeowners will qualify for average refunds of $837, with the payouts arriving as the fall season does. Some of the roughly 350,000 eligible renters are already seeing refunds averaging $643. And as many as 94,000 farmers could get a special credit of up to $205 by mid-October.
Republicans argue it all comes at a steep cost. State taxes on smokers, corporations and high-income filers went up by hundreds of millions of dollars per year. An Oct. 10 budget update will show whether the tax haul expected from July through September actually materialized.
The GOP is also eagerly awaiting the Department of Commerce's publication of new premiums for insurance plans offered through MNsure. The rates could be out by Oct. 1 and Republicans believe consumers will encounter substantially higher prices for comparable policies.
"There absolutely are people who are winners, who have done well and who are paying less or in some cases getting insurance that they haven't been able to get before," Hoppe said." But I think the number of people who have benefited is going to be dwarfed by the number of people paying a lot more for their health insurance."
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Labor Day kicks off a two-month sprint toward Election Day. This story is part of a package that sets the stage for the November elections.