Hey, Minnesotans, “can you spare $50 for a few weeks?” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt asked.
His pitch, on a mailing from the House Republican campaign, was one of a horde of similar pleas that Minnesotans are receiving these days heralding the return of the state’s Political Contribution Refund program.
The two-decade-old program allows Minnesota taxpayers to contribute up to $50, $100 for a married couple, to a candidate or party and get a tax refund back from the state. It’s designed to get candidates to agree to spending limits and amplify the voices of regular Minnesotans.
The refund system has been on hiatus for four years, the result of skinny state budgets and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s dislike of the concept of the state underwriting contributions. Pawlenty, a Republican, tried repeatedly to kill the funding and finally succeeded in 2009.
This year, with a Democratic Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in charge, the program roared back with a $12 million two-year cash infusion.
For most Democrats, asking for the cash involves no philosophical conflict. “I think it’s great,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.
The DFL already has started pushing the program, reworking its phone-bank operation and rewriting its direct-mail solicitations to include promotion of the refund system.
“When it went away, it eliminated the ability for average people in this state without a lot of means to have an influence,” Martin said.
Republicans’ relationship with the refunds tends to be a bit more complicated. Many agree with Pawlenty — dismissing the program as welfare for politicians.
“I voted against [refunds] I can’t tell you how many times in the Legislature,” said party Chairman Keith Downey, who served in the Minnesota House from 2009 to 2012.
Daudt, R-Crown, said he was critical of the DFL for bringing the program back to life this year. “This really, frankly, is the wrong priority,” he said.
Assume fundraising politics is at play? Maybe not.
When the program was in full effect, Republicans were better than Democrats at gathering small-dollar donors to contribute.
In 2008, the last full year the program was funded, the DFL Party and its local branches raised $1.1 million refunded to 20,841 donors. The same year, 42,469 state GOP donors saw refunds that totaled nearly $3 million.
And this year, Republicans, whose state party had been so deeply in debt last year that it was threatened with eviction from its headquarters, are hoping to repeat the success.
“We will use it, as much as we don’t agree with the policy,” Downey said. “You’ve got to play the cards you are dealt.”