Tim Walz, the DFL candidate for governor, has already amassed a robust and growing list of promises that would expand government programs and offer new ones, including two years of tuition-free college, universal prekindergarten, public health insurance and rural broadband access.
“This idea of smart investments in people, infrastructure and research — that’s how you grow an economy, and the money comes right back to the state budget,” said Walz, whose expansive view of government comes in a state that is already one of the highest taxed in the nation.
Walz is sketching out a vision of an activist state government that provides companies the skilled workers they need — beginning before kindergarten and continuing into higher education; transportation infrastructure to move goods and people; and a robust social welfare system to take care of the very young, old and disabled.
This would make Minnesota an island in a sea of Republican Midwestern states that offer companies and residents a different bargain: lower taxes and a lighter regulatory touch as they seek to attract and nurture new businesses and people who might otherwise flee to warmer climates.
Republican nominee Jeff Johnson thinks Minnesotans are seeking change after eight years of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who tried some of the same policies: “We’ve seen a big increase in state spending in eight years. [Walz] is making promises to increase spending on everything under the sun because it helps get votes, but I don’t think it’s an honest way to campaign.”
Walz, a congressman serving a broad swath of southern Minnesota, faces a difficult challenge that the GOP’s Johnson is trying to leverage: Since its 1944 inception, not once has the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party controlled the governor’s office for more than eight years consecutively.
As Dayton ends his eight-year tenure, Walz has to convince voters that Minnesota is on the right track while also offering something new to an electorate that has historically grown weary of parties in control of the office for so long. Walz also spent more than a year talking solely to his party’s progressive base. While competing with other candidates perceived as more progressive, Walz tried to woo voters who challenged him to offer bold — and expensive — ideas.
Walz’s answer, it seems, is to take some of Dayton’s ideas and push them further, while adding some new ones along the way.
Unlike Dayton, who inherited a fiscal mess, if Walz were elected governor, he would have the advantage of a stable budget outlook, including reserve funds nearing $2 billion and a triple A bond rating.
Walz promises to meet constitutional obligations of a balanced budget, and he said he voted against the federal bank and auto bailouts as a congressman in 2008 and 2009 because of his belief in “responsible budgeting.” But he also said in a Star Tribune interview that he believes Minnesota’s high per capita income and stable growth show that Minnesota’s path, while different from its neighbors’, is the right one.
He would offer all parents the option of tuition-free prekindergarten and has talked expansively about early childhood education reaching back to prenatal care. When Dayton proposed his prekindergarten proposal in 2015, his budget office estimated the cost for 2018-19 at $586 million.
Dayton won only incremental spending increases in prekindergarten, but still his administration oversaw a 38 percent increase in overall education spending, compared to 22 percent during the tenure of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Walz, a former high school geography teacher, said more needs to be done, pledging to cut class sizes, for instance. That’s expensive. Cutting class sizes from 25 to 24 would require 4 percent more teachers and 4 percent more classrooms.
According to the state Office of Higher Education, a program like the one Walz has proposed for tuition-free college — just for families with incomes of less than $125,000 — would cost the state $264.7 million annually.
Walz’s promise to “restore” local government aid to 2002 levels could be expensive. The state sent about $140 per person to local city governments in 2002, but that dropped to about $115 per person in recent years.
Even adjusting only for population growth, increasing local government aid to 2002 levels would cost more than $125 million annually.
Walz has also promised to spend $300 million on broadband technology to bring underserved areas of the state up to speed, which has been on the wish list of many greater Minnesota communities and businesses for years.
Walz wants Minnesotans to be able to buy into a government health insurance program now reserved for the working poor called MinnesotaCare. Although the recipients would pay premiums, the continued existence of the program would require the Legislature to continue a tax on health care that finances it and is projected to raise $1.3 billion in 2018-19.; the tax is set to expire at the end of 2019.
Walz said voters should know he doesn’t plan to achieve all of this in his first year; more like his first term, he said.
Johnson said he favors a strong safety net, good schools and transportation, but has a different vision: “We have to start being smart about how we spend money. We overtax people in this state, and not just rich people. Middle class and even poor people,” he said. “Minnesotans are willing to pay taxes if their money is being spent wisely. But right now we’re not real careful with other people’s money.”
Walz said he is considering creative ways to meet the state’s needs. The state will soon be seeing a revenue increase from money collected from online retailers, many of whose customers escaped paying sales taxes until now. Walz said his plan to legalize and tax recreational marijuana would create additional revenue.
He also said spending money on early childhood education would create savings on items like remedial education and even criminal justice costs later on. And, he said, not spending on necessary programs and infrastructure can merely shift costs to Minnesotans: “If you’re not spending money on higher education, now you have a student loan crisis. If we don’t spend money on roads, it costs hundreds of millions of dollars in idling tax,” Walz said, referring to vehicles stuck in traffic wasting fuel.
Walz allows that his plans may require more money, which is why he’s proposed — like Dayton — a gas tax increase and a continuation of the health care provider tax. If need be, Walz said, he would rely on progressive taxes that would hit the wealthiest Minnesotans hardest.
Walz said there should be no question that he wants Minnesota to be different from other states.
“If you want Mississippi, Jeff’s got your model for it,” Walz said of Johnson.
Johnson called that “utterly ridiculous.”
“I don’t think anyone in Minnesota wants us to be Mississippi, or they’d move to Mississippi. We’re never going to be a low tax state,” Johnson said. “But let’s not be the highest tax in every category. And let’s be smart in how we spend other’s people’s money.”