Taxes Committee chair Julianne Ortman says she 'came here to find some long-term solutions.'
Capitol scribes aren't supposed to have a favorite chamber.
So I risk a frosty reception on the House floor next week with a confession: Over the years, I've been particularly fond of the Minnesota Senate.
Through most of the last four decades, the Senate was state government's stabilizer and dealmaker.
Something about its longer terms, larger districts and courtly traditions tends to transform run-of-the-mill politicians into statesfolk, capable of occasional flashes of political selflessness for Minnesota's sake.
When I allowed last week that I hoped for as much from the Senate's new GOP majority, Taxes Committee chair Julianne Ortman didn't correct me. Neither did she show me the door when I said I wanted to talk a little tax reform.
By "reform," I said, I meant eliminating some income tax deductions and exemptions in order to lower the rates (and/or raise some money).
Or putting the sales tax on more consumer transactions in order to lower the rate (eventually, after raising some money).
Or raising a comparatively inoffensive tax to replace a bad one (though maybe not right away, given the need to raise some money).
Ortman didn't flinch. In fact, she seemed to warm to the subject.
"I came here to find some long-term solutions -- to fix some things that need fixing, " said the attorney and former Carver County commissioner who took a shine to tax policy even before winning a Senate seat in 2002.
Ortman said she favors phasing out the uncompetitive corporate income tax. She's critical of Minnesota's failure to fully conform to the federal income tax code.
She's determined to review the worth of tax exemptions and deductions and scrap those that aren't serving their intended public purpose.
And, unlike the Republican governor who launched it, she's a fan of the 2009 report of the 21st Century Tax Reform Commission -- all of it. It called for expanding the sales tax to clothing and more services in exchange for cuts in business taxes, particularly the corporate income tax.
At her fingertips was a study documenting a shift in Minnesota economic activity over 20 years.
The lightly taxed services sector now accounts for 80 percent of gross state product. The production and sale of goods, taxed more heavily in Minnesota than in many other states, is down to a 20 percent share.
Taxing the services sector relatively more to allow for taxing goods relatively less has much to recommend it -- not least, I noted, the opportunity to shore up state revenues to help erase a big deficit.
Ortman wouldn't go there. Those reform ideas are "interesting as a potential long-term solution" to the state's tax ills, she said. "I don't see them being part of our caucus proposal to balance the budget."
The GOP opening bid for closing the 2012-13 budget gap will be all about putting government on a diet, she said.
"This is a two-part subject. There's the short term and the long term," Ortman said. "It's a matter of timing."
In other words, Senate Republicans plan to enter the budget fray as politicians, not statesfolk.
That's pretty much what Gov. Mark Dayton will do, too, he signaled last week.
His State of the State message, which served as a preamble to the budget proposal he's due to release Tuesday, advised legislators to expect a call for higher income taxes for upper-income Minnesotans.
He'll start there despite a personal appeal Ortman said she made to him recently: If you must propose a tax increase, please choose a different one.
A new high-end tax bracket is "the worst possible solution" to the state's money problems, she contended, arguing that it will send people and businesses with means packing for other states.
If both sides stay on those courses, Minnesotans can expect six more weeks of impasse at the Capitol. Or more.
But the shared responsibility to govern this state commands that at some point, a Dayton-vs.-Legislature impasse must be resolved.
All those tax reform ideas Ortman discussed could prove quite useful in making that happen. And the fact that she's well versed in those options tells me she may be gearing up to play the Senate's traditional role.
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