Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey waded into legislative session politics Tuesday, debuting a campaign-style TV commercial — starring himself — that pressures DFLers to return the state’s entire $1.9 billion budget surplus to taxpayers.
What the ad doesn’t mention is that numerous GOP state lawmakers have also proposed ways of using the surplus. And the advertising purchase, which Downey said would cost about $150,000, concerns some Republicans who see fresh signs of the Minnesota GOP’s persistent debt problems.
“What would you do with an extra $350?” Downey says in the ad airing statewide on broadcast and cable outlets, in print and online. If the projected $1.9 billion surplus were divided equally among Minnesota’s 5.5 million residents, every man, woman and child would get just under $350.
That’s not likely to happen. While Republicans in the House majority say they want to pass a variety of tax reductions, there’s been no suggestion from DFL or GOP lawmakers that they want straight-up tax rebates.
“I don’t think anybody’s talking about giving it back in the sense of giving people checks,” said Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Recently, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, set a baseline expectation that House Republicans would return at least half the surplus in relief to taxpayers. Initial GOP proposals include some tax reductions for business owners.
But that’s significantly less than the “Give It Back” approach espoused in the state GOP ad, which encourages Minnesotans to sign a petition calling for the same.
GOP legislative leaders and rank-and-file members alike have already proposed a litany of ways to spend the surplus. Knoblach said Tuesday that a plan is in place to direct at least $200 million to road and bridge projects. Daudt has talked of additional spending for schools and long-term care for seniors, as have other GOP legislators. Individual Republicans have suggested increases in aid to local governments, for agricultural programs, even arts programs.
Daudt said Tuesday that House Republicans would crystallize their budget plans by the end of March.
“I’ve got over $8 billion in requests” for either new spending or tax relief, said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, chairman of the House Taxes Committee. He also noted House Republicans have to deal with the DFL holding both the governor’s office and the Senate majority.
“They can come out with their perfect world, and I think that’s good,” Davids said of the GOP ad campaign. “But I look at the final product. Every branch and the governor’s office is going to get something of what they want.”
Among other things, Dayton proposed that $100 million of the surplus go to making about 92,000 more Minnesota families eligible for a child care tax credit. “I think the governor will get that,” Davids said.
Downey stopped short of saying Republican lawmakers would face consequences from the party if they don’t vote to return the entire surplus. He also declined to offer suggestions for how best the surplus could be returned.
“We’ll let them work it out,” Downey said.
A former state lawmaker from Edina who lost his seat in 2012, Downey took over the party two years ago with a promise to continue rebuilding from a financial crisis brought on by debts from the 2010 election cycle.
Hoping for donations
The party’s debt has been reduced under Downey’s watch, from $2 million to $1.47 million at the end of the January.
But recently several national Republican media firms have come forward to criticize Downey in letters and interviews for still having nearly $300,000 in unpaid bills — many stemming from the 2014 election. Next month, Downey is running for another two-year term as chairman; he currently has no declared opponents.
“I’m puzzled that they’re spending on [TV ads] rather than focusing on getting us out of the red,” said Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, a former party vice chairwoman. During her time in party leadership, Fenton said, “I worked hard to raise a lot of money to pay down debt.”
Downey suggested the ad could generate donor contributions that would offset its costs, although he will have to pay for the ad campaign upfront. He also explained why he decided to star in the ad, considering party chairmen rarely take a public spokesman role on legislative matters. His efforts earned Downey a rebuke from his DFL counterpart, Ken Martin.
“His insistence on ideological purity pits him against fair-minded Republicans who are trying to do the job they were sent to do in St. Paul,” Martin said.
Downey said he appeared in the ad on the advice of “partners” who said the message should come from “the face and voice of the party.”
He said the ad does not betray an interest in a statewide office on his part. “You don’t run for party chair if you have political ambitions,” Downey said.