DFL Rep. Paul Marquart recently shared a photo that tells a big story. The image is ordinary enough — four guys sitting around a small-town cafe table adorned with ketchup and mustard containers. But Marquart’s caption packs a punch:
“This is the entire DFL legislative and congressional caucus in the western third of Minnesota,” he explained.
Election results maps confirm it. This foursome — Marquart of Dilworth, his fellow state House member Ben Lien of Moorhead, their state senator Kent Eken of Twin Valley, and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who hails from Detroit Lakes — are the only DFL occupants of legislative and congressional offices in a vast border-to-border expanse. Peterson reportedly told the others that day that when he was first elected to Congress in 1990, 33 of the legislators in his congressional district were DFLers.
It’s a testament to these survivors’ hardy dispositions that the beverages visible on their table were the sort that contain caffeine, not something more numbing. They might have consoled themselves that day by noting that the rest of the nation has also witnessed a rural shift to the Republican Party since 2008. GOP President Trump whomped Democrat Hillary Clinton in Peterson’s Seventh District by 31 percentage points.
But Marquart says there was more to the DFL’s woes in his quadrant of the state than Trump’s strong coattails. Closer to home, his party has come to stand for Black Lives Matter, same-sex marriage and environmental regulations that look heavy-handed to his constituents. That’s not what they want to hear, he said.
“The people I represent are middle-class people who work hard and play by the rules, and feel that they are not getting ahead. They want to know that their government sees them and is paying attention to their needs,” he said. “They’re asking, ‘Where’s the focus on me?’ ”
That question weighs on Marquart as he plays a key role for his caucus this session. The 60-year-old social studies teacher is the DFL minority lead on the House Taxes Committee, which will soon be assembling the omnibus tax bill, perennially the most politically charged bill of the year.
Marquart’s nine-term seniority and proven lawmaking ability earned him that spot. But his address likely played a role, too. A party with the word “Farmer” in its name isn’t willing to forever yield the western third of the state to the opposition.
The Republicans in charge of the House know well that their gains in the last two elections have come primarily in Greater Minnesota. But their indebtedness to outstate voters didn’t keep them from designing an oversized tax cut in 2015 whose big-ticket item was a business property tax break that disproportionately benefited the Twin Cities.
That bill didn’t become law. It was set aside in 2015, then slimmed down and reconstituted into something better geared to Greater Minnesota in 2016. Then it was vetoed — a move that Marquart says backfired on the DFL governor among rural voters.
Election results that brought the GOP a 77-57 majority in the Minnesota House and 34-33 control of the Senate could tempt Republicans to try again for big tax breaks that benefit their party’s well-heeled patrons.
If they do, Marquart says, the DFL should be ready with a message tailored to Greater Minnesota: Big tax cuts for the rich won’t improve your quality of life. “Rural Minnesota needs strong schools, better roads, high-speed broadband — all things DFLers are willing to invest in,” Marquart said. All things that will be squeezed if a tax cut is supersized.
Those items and a few more are part of the 2017 session wish list advanced by the new Minnesota Rural Equity Project, a joint effort of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, Greater Minnesota Partnership, the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition and Growth & Justice.
Notably, some tax cuts are on their list, too. They like a school bond property tax break for farmers, a larger tax credit for low-income working families, a decent boost in state aid to local governments, and tax credits for developers of workforce housing in rural places where traditional housing finance mechanisms aren’t working.
Marquart said he could also go along with a modest business property tax cut skewed toward small businesses and relief for middle-income seniors from state income taxation of Social Security benefits.
That should give the Republicans who are assembling this session’s tax bill plenty of potentially bipartisan options from which to choose. The trick will be to keep their choices modest enough to allow for rural-friendly spending increases, too. If they don’t, this session’s potential for a bipartisan finish will fly away — and Marquart might need a bigger table when DFL winners in western Minnesota convene in 2018.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.