For most of us, Mark Twain's counsel "get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please" is just a funny line. For too many politicians, it's strategic advice. With Labor Day behind us and candidates for the Minnesota Legislature ramping up their campaigns, it's time for voters to look beyond the fact-parsing political rhetoric.
Fiscal policy is a good place to start. "The state budget we inherited faced a $6.2 billion deficit; now it has a $1 billion surplus in a single year," proclaimed Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Zellers earlier this year. Zellers isn't lying -- the state does have a temporary surplus -- but he dangerously distorts the fiscal challenges facing Minnesota.
The state's budget is built on deferred payments to schools and the use of future revenue to pay current bills. Even with these gimmicks, most objective economists agree that next year's Legislature won't have a surplus but another billion-dollar deficit.
Democrats have their own credibility gap when it comes to budget rhetoric. In July, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen marked the anniversary of last year's government shutdown by blaming the entire fiasco on the unwillingness of Republicans to compromise with Gov. Mark Dayton. In other words, the DFL's factual distortion is that Republicans alone are responsible for Minnesota's fiscal travesty.
Nonsense. Legislative Democrats mostly were passive observers during the 2011 session, offering few substantive solutions. Dayton was at the wheel, steering the state to the end-of-session train wreck. Even in the 11th hour of the 2011 session, he insisted on tax increases that reflected only his and the DFL's politics. Republicans weren't going there, and government shut down. The impasse was resolved with a bad Republican bill signed by a Democratic governor after the two parties spent six months talking past each other.
Want a better discussion of Minnesota's budget challenges and innovative recommendations? Take a look at sources like the Minnesota Budget Project or the report of the Budget Trends Study Commission.
Distorted facts abound on other campaign issues. In the Republicans' world, taxes keep rising to feed an insatiable government. The reality, according to the generally conservative Tax Foundation, is that Minnesotans are paying less in state and local taxes as a percentage of income than 20 years ago. According to the state's budget office, spending from the general fund increased only at about the rate of inflation in the past 10 years.
Democrats are equally misleading on tax policy. Few of them will acknowledge that Minnesotans already pay 50 percent more in individual income taxes than the national average, according to a 2011 report by the nonpartisan Minnesota Taxpayers Association. Tax fairness is a legitimate issue, but pushing Minnesota's tax rate even higher would be a major policy disaster.
For better tax policy ideas than you will hear from most candidates, check out the 21st Century Tax Reform Commission report or the Minnesota Taxpayers Association. Both offer voters new solutions for creating a tax system that is fairer, but also one that will promote investment and economic growth that benefits everyone, rich and poor.
On job creation, both parties are fudging the facts. Republicans keep insisting that smaller, lower-cost government is the only answer to economic growth. Yet, between January 2003 and January 2011 -- Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's time in office -- the number of employed Minnesotans grew by a measly 12,000, not even enough to keep pace with our state's population growth.
Meanwhile, the best the DFL has come up with is one-time tax credits designed to subsidize hiring 10,000 unemployed Minnesotans. That falls well short of the mark. According to the July jobs report, the state has recovered only about half of the jobs lost since the recession's start, leaving 165,000 people unemployed.
More effective job creation solutions would emphasize workforce education, investments in infrastructure, support for research and capital to jump-start growth industries, and streamlining government regulations. It is the kind of comprehensive approach that innovative initiatives like Greater MSP (the Twin Cities regional economic development partnership) are advocating.
Voters must do their homework and look beyond the distortions and simplistic slogans coming from both sides of the aisle. There are good solutions for Minnesota's future, but they will be achieved only if we support leaders who deal in facts, not fantasy.
Tom Horner is a public-affairs consultant and was chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn. Tim Penny is president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and is a former Democratic member of Congress. Both are former Independence Party candidates for governor.