With an insider’s eye, Hot Dish tracks the tastiest bits of Minnesota’s political scene and keep you up-to-date on those elected to serve you.

Contributors in Minnesota: Patrick Condon, Baird Helgeson, Patricia Lopez, Jim Ragsdale, Abby Simons, Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Glen Stubbe. Contributors in D.C.: Allison Sherry, Corey Mitchell and Jim Spencer.

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Minnesota property taxes to go down, with help of aids and credits

Posted by: Baird Helgeson Updated: July 16, 2014 - 11:12 AM

Minnesota property taxes will go down about $49 million for residents who qualify to state aids and credits this year, according to a new report.

The report by a nonpartisan legislative office shows that property taxes would go up $124 million without aids and credits, but new property tax and renters credits will more than offset the increases.

The report has set off a new round of high-stakes political fighting in St. Paul. Legislative Democrats have pledged to lower property taxes through more state aid to local governments and through direct property tax relief in the form of aids and credits.

In a letter to constituents, House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, credited Democrats' work for lowering property taxes for the first time in 12 years.

Homeowners will get some of the largest reductions in property taxes in 2014, about $171 million, or about 5.2 percent lower than last year. But owners of agricultural property, public utility land and commercial property could see their property levy edge up.

Republicans are zeroing in on a similar property tax report for 2015. That report shows property taxes will go up next year, even with aids and credits. However, analysts caution the 2015 numbers are highly speculative and make a rough guess and what local governments will do with their property tax levies.

“We knew farmers and rural landowners were going to be hit hard with property tax increases, but now it appears that homeowners in all tax brackets can expect to pay more despite promises the Democrats made over the past two years,” said state Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who sits on the House Property and Local Tax Division.

Minnesota’s property tax rates are a combination of levies of local government, schools and the state, which means they can vary wildly from community to community.

“The Democrats raised taxes on Minnesotans by more than $2 billion, and vowed this would actually help property taxes go down,” said state Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, ranking Republican on the House Taxes Committee. “This report proves they didn’t keep their word and now Minnesotans are going to pay an even steeper price.”

The lead author of the report cautioned that the figures for aids and credits are only estimates based on their best guesses as to how many Minnesotans apply for the tax relief.

The year-to-year comparison for actual taxes paid between 2013 and 2014, the numbers Republicans are highlighting, are the only numbers analysts know for sure, said Steve Hinze, a legislative analyst in the research department of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Calculating aids and credits, as Democrats are counting on, gets murkier, he said.

The numbers “are actually pretty speculative because there is a new initiative aimed at getting more eligible taxpayers to apply for refunds this year, and no one really knows how successful it will be,” Hinze said.

Democrats say the only number that matters is what Minnesotans actually pay, which will be lower once they receive their aids and credits.

Many Democrats are especially happy that the some of the steepest tax reductions for homeowners and renters are in the rural areas.

Rep. John Persell, DFL- Bemidji, wrote a letter reminding constituents that property taxes were soaring as former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut millions from local governments.

Now, he said, legislators and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton  “moved Minnesota in a different direction” and are lowering property taxes for the first time in years.

Peterson, Westrom step up fundraising pace in Seventh District race

Posted by: Corey Mitchell Updated: July 15, 2014 - 4:56 PM

In Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District race, Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and his Republican challenger, Torrey Westrom, stepped up their fundraising during the months of April, May and June.

Peterson raised $268,000 during the quarter and has $717,300 banked for his re-election bid. The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson is seeking a 13th term in Congress.

Westrom raised nearly $231,500 and has almost $327,800 cash-on-hand. The attorney and state senator, announced his candidacy in early December.

The second quarter marked the best fundraising period of the election cycle for both candidates.

Westrom has the backing of the national Republicans, who consider Peterson vulnerable because he hails from a district that backed Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. The seat covers much of western Minnesota from the Canadian border down to southern part of the state.

This spring, the National Republican Congressional Committee named Westrom to its “Young Guns” program  for promising candidates.

Despite the district's conservative tilt, Republicans challengers haven't posed much of a threat to Peterson, a conservative Democrat who has coasted to re-election for much of the past 20 years.

Zellers touts Dayton's 'surrender' after shutdown

Posted by: Baird Helgeson Updated: July 14, 2014 - 11:52 AM

Republican gubernatorial candidate and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers is claiming credit for getting DFL Mark Dayton to “surrender” after the government shutdown three years ago.

"Democrats, political pundits, special interest groups, and even many Republicans predicted that we wouldn't hold to our principles," Zellers said Monday, marking the three-year anniversary of the end of the shutdown. "But I did not surrender and the GOP legislative majorities did not cave. Instead, it was Governor Dayton who surrendered to us after two weeks."

Dayton and the Republican-led Legislature could not agree on the budget and sent the state into a three-week partial government shutdown, the longest in state history. The state faced a multibillion-dollar deficit and the two sides could not agree the best way to patch up the budget.

Dayton wanted more than $2 billion in tax increases mostly on high earners. Zellers and other Republicans refused to raise taxes and instead wanted to borrow money from K-12 public schools and sell bonds backed by the state’s tobacco settlement.

Dayton eventually agreed to accept the Republican plan, though remained sharply critical of the borrowing.

While Dayton did not get his way in the shutdown, Minnesota voters jettisoned enough Republicans in the next election to give Democrats control of both the House and the Senate. Zellers lost his leardership position, too.

After their historic gains, Dayton and legislative Democrats eventually did raise taxes on high earners and smokers to balance the state budget. The economic recovery allowed to state to repay all of the money borrowed from public schools.

Zellers said he still believes the tax increases were bad for Minnesotans.

"I understood that it was wrong to force middle-class families to pay more for government during an economic downturn,” Zellers said. "I'm the only candidate who has proven his strength and his commitment to conservative principles to be able to beat Dayton and the liberal interest groups again in November."

Uptick in absentee ballot votes this year

Posted by: Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Updated: July 11, 2014 - 11:57 AM

With a competitive gubernatorial primary, 15 legislative primaries and a new law allowing anyone to vote absentee, more Minnesotans are voting early.

According to the Secretary of State's office, as of Thursday more than 2,000 Minnesotans had successfully cast absentee ballots for the August 12th primary.

That's more than previous years at similar points in the election cycle. In 2010, by July 18, only 1,500 Minnesotans had cast absentee ballots. That year, the first when Minnesota had an August primary rather than an election in September, featured a DFL primary for governor as well as several hot local races.

This year, for the first time, Minnesotans do not need to give an excuse for why they want to vote absentee. That change, plus encouragement from political campaigns to vote early, may explain the uptick in absentee ballots.

Minnesotans can register to vote, request absentee ballots and track their ballots online at http://www.mnvotes.org.

Minnesota tax collections beat annual target by $168 million

Posted by: Baird Helgeson Updated: July 10, 2014 - 4:15 PM

Minnesota tax collections surpassed expectations by $168 million over the last year, boosted largely by stronger than expected income and sales tax revenue.

Revenue collections had lagged slightly the last few months, but surging state income tax payments allowed state to take in $235 million more than state budget officials estimated for that period.

Corporate income taxes were down slightly, but higher than expected sales tax revenue helped make up for it. The corporate tax is the most volatile, and wild swings are not uncommon.

Minnesota budget officials warn that the U.S. economy hit "a deep pothole” at the beginning of 2014, resulting in the worst quarterly performance since the depths of the Great Recession in early 2009.

Economic experts attributed the drop to a sharp swing in the trade deficit, a surprise fall in health care spending and extreme winter weather. The bad weather slowed consumer spending, housing, and industrial activity.

Economists say the economy is staring to improve rapidly, with faster employment and income growth, along with improving home and vehicle sales.

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