That should do it, thought I, when a dozen CEO bylines including Ecolab’s Doug Baker, U.S. Bank’s Richard Davis, Best Buy’s Hubert Joly and Target’s Brian Cornell appeared on these pages two weeks before the end of the 2016 Legislature’s regular session. The CEOs’ call for the Legislature to give a green light to Southwest light rail should turn the tide in the transit project’s favor.
After all, this same gaggle of business bigwigs ran the very same play at about the very same time in the 2012 session, on behalf of a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings. The one in which the Vikes will take the field for the first time on Aug. 28.
Big business had its way at the Legislature four years ago. In fact, through 158 years of statehood, big business has prevailed at the State Capitol more often than not. Tales of a handful of cigar-smoking moguls huddling at the Minneapolis Club to chart the state’s course may be mostly apocryphal — though that is pretty much how James J. Hill and Charles A. Pillsbury decided the location of scores of small Minnesota and Dakota towns in the 1880s. And it’s how Minneapolis got its Institute of Arts on Jan. 10, 1911. (No, I didn’t cover that meeting.)
But I can attest that in the past 40 years, when big business has wanted lower property taxes, or open enrollment in public schools, or a break from high workers’ compensation costs, or a stadium or three or four, the Legislature has complied — if not initially, then eventually. Usually, Republicans are especially eager to do businesses’ bidding.
So it came as a surprise to me — and probably to the bylined CEOs — that their May 7 missive in the Star Tribune produced no discernible effect on Republican opposition to Southwest light rail. GOP resistance didn’t budge then, and it hasn’t budged since — despite the high price that’s being exacted for saying no. The toll as of Thursday, when talks about a special session collapsed: a tax bill that would have delivered $550 million in relief through mid-2019; a $1 billion bonding bill plus some cash for still more building projects, and upward of $700 million for earmarked highway projects around the state. Those items would have been on a special-session agenda if House Republicans had bent even a little on rail transit.
Has big business lost its touch? I asked a guy whose job it is to apply business pressure at the Capitol, Minnesota Business Partnership executive director Charlie Weaver. Not surprisingly, he said no.
“This wasn’t an indictment of the influence of the business community,” Weaver said. “It’s a reflection of the energy around the [transit] issue.”
Make that the lack of energy. He explained that when business leaders called for a new home for the Vikings in 2012, legislators knew the CEOs were speaking for a horde of NFL fans in their districts. They had been hearing from pro-stadium constituents when they knocked on doors. Transit improvements don’t have that kind of grass-roots support, Weaver said.
That may be true in the exurban and outstate districts represented by Republicans. But it’s clearly not true closer to the core of the metro area. Witness the busload of sign-waving, sticker-bedecked, orange-clad citizens who showed up last Wednesday at a Counties Transit Improvement Board meeting to plead for a lifeline for the proposed bus rapid transit Orange Line between Minneapolis and Burnsville. They came from the grass roots — of Minneapolis.
Business leaders are struggling to get Republicans to see Metro Transit upgrades as more than a local benefit for a DFL-dominated part of the state.
“We tell them: This isn’t about return on investment,” Weaver said. “This is bigger than the numbers on a spread sheet. This is about attracting talent to this region. That’s a serious challenge for us going forward. This is about sustaining a vibrant community that competes with the world and attracts the talent needed to grow great companies. We want to build a better transit system because we want to compete.”
Republican legislators aren’t just unpersuaded by that argument. They seem hostile to it. Opposition to Southwest light rail is emerging as a major theme in their 2016 campaign, akin to the bashing of the new Minnesota Senate Building that worked GOP political magic in 2014. Witness the pronouncement of the GOP-allied Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative Fund on Thursday: “Minnesotans can’t afford to return to one-party control where Democrats spend recklessly on things like lavish office buildings for part-time politicians and trains in Minneapolis with no regard for balance.” The same release reprised a theme that served House GOP candidates well in 2014. It labeled the opposition “metro-centric DFLers.”
A harsh game of divide-and-conquer politics is being played in Minnesota legislative races, and Republican candidates evidently don’t intend to let big-business thinking about transit spoil their game.
It may be that GOP legislators think they can mess up a quarter-century of Metro Transit planning with impunity. It may be that they don’t believe the business community will put its campaign money where its op-ed essays have been.
They may be right. Republican Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie boasted to Capitol reporters Thursday that he had just been endorsed by TwinWest Chamber of Commerce despite his disagreement with that business group’s support for Southwest light rail.
If businesspeople want their words to matter at the Capitol, they have to be willing to put their campaign money where their mouths are.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.