A new report by the Minnesota Department of Revenue shows that property taxes held steady this year, down about $8 million after all state property tax refunds.
“This drop in property taxes is good news for Minnesotans, who for years have been hammered by double-digit property tax increases," DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said. "Thanks to the relief provided by the DFL Legislature last year, property taxes are actually going down statewide, for the first time in 12 years."
The amount of savings is less than Dayton and Democratic legislators predicted last year, but Minnesota Department of Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans called it “great progress.”
Republicans had warned that Democrats' desire to lower property taxes by increasing aid to local governments wouldn’t work, arguing that cities and counties would merely bulk up their budgets without lowering local property taxes.
"Despite Democrats repeated promises to reduce property taxes, Minnesotans learned today they are facing the highest property tax levy in state history,” said Hanska Rep. Paul Torkelson, the Republican lead on the House Property and Local Tax Division Committee. “Governor Dayton and Democrats set the target and they missed. After Democrats took $2.4 billion in new taxes and fees this past session, hardworking taxpayers can't afford to pay more."
Revenue Department officials found that city, county and school levies went up about $125 million this year, but that was before $133 million in state property tax aids and credits were returned to taxpayers.
Since 2002, property taxes rose an average of $332 million each year, according to the Revenue Department.
Frans said the state has finally broken the cycle.
“Overall, the number is one we are pretty satisfied with,” he said.
A bipartisan group pushing a proposed constitutional amendment to change how Minnesota judges are elected began their public lobbying effort at the Capitol on Wednesday.
The Coalition of Impartial Justice is pressing for a change that would end traditional judicial elections. Instead, sitting judges would face an independent review and their records shared with Minnesota voters, who would then decide whether to keep or toss the jurist.
Advocates say this is superior to the current system, where most judges run unopposed with little outside scrutiny. They also say existing system more easily allows judicial elections to become expensive campaigns, as partisan groups square off after a judge’s ruling on a divisive issue.
“The judicial system works because people trust it and they don’t think it is bought and paid for,” said former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, who was appointed by former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “We are at a perfect storm now,” he said, noting a recent spate of expensive and divisive judicial elections in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Critics like attorney Greg Wersal say supporters want to tinker with the constitution for something that has never been a problem in the state. Judges almost always run unopposed and voters have not ousted an incumbent Supreme Court justice in more than 80 years. He said this is really an effort by sitting judges to protect their positions.
About 20 other states use such judicial retention elections, but Minnesota would join a handful of other states that require a nonpartisan panel to select a pool of qualified judges and an independent assessment of a judge’s tenure that would be shared with voters.
If voters toss a judge, the new judge would come from a group vetted by the indepedent review panel. There would be no way for an outside candidate to run against a judge.
Supporters say the new system makes judges more accountable.
“Minnesotans have little or no info about judges when they are on the ballot,” said Sarah Walker, the group’s president. “There is really no means of holding the judges accountable.”
So far, DFL legislative leaders have not publicly committed to putting this constitutional amendment on the ballot in the coming election. In the last election, voters defeated two proposed amendments, one banning same-sex marriage and another that would have required voters to show a photo ID.
Gov. Mark Dayton, in his first significant attempt to gather campaign cash from other people, has proved he is an ample fundraiser.
According to his campaign, he raised $1.1 million for his re-election effort in 2013. Of that he had about $800,000 cash on hand left to spend, according to his campaign manager Katharine Tinucci.
Dayton, who has largely self financed all his previous campaigns, said he would raise money from others for his re-election and has followed through on that pledge. His nearly $1.1 million haul does not include any personal funds, Tinucci said.
The figure presages hefty spending on what so far has been a low profile gubernatorial election. Already a host of outside groups are ramping up to sway voters in this year's election and Dayton's Republican rivals have been fundraising themselves to oust the DFL governor from office.
Dayton's haul bests the fundraising figures from the top two Republican candidates fundraising combined and is about $200,000 more than former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty raised for his re-election campaign the year before he won his second term.
Among Republican candidates for governor, former House Speaker Kurt Zellers and businessman Scott Honour have topped the charts. According to self-reported figures, Honour raised over $500,000 from donors and Zellers raised about $400,000 for his campaign. Honour may have additionally lent his campaign some funds.
Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson said he raised over $240,000, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert brought in more than $150,000 and state Sen. Dave Thompson hauled about $120,000.
All told, the five Republican rivals brought in about $1.4 million for their campaigns but, unlike Dayton, they still have an intra-party fight to wade through before they can reach November voters. All campaign finance reports are due to the state's campaign finance agency by the end of the week.
Dayton, meanwhile, has the DFL field all to himself and is already picking up union endorsements that will assist him as he vies to return to the chief executive spot.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Nurses Association said it has endorsed him for a second term. That union endorsement joins those from the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Education Minnesota, the American Federation State, County and Municipal Employees and Minnesota Association of Professional Employees.
That union backing can provide powerful support for the governor's re-election bid. Unions have contributed tens of millions of dollars to Minnesota campaign efforts since 2007.
One of the most seasoned and experienced House Republican staffers is leaving her post next month.
House GOP executive director Chas Anderson notified staff on Wednesday that “it is time for me to personally pursue other professional opportunities.”
Anderson did not say what her next move will be, but she has been involved in former GOP House Speaker Kurt Zellers' gubernatorial bid.
“Right now, I’m focused on finding future employment,” Anderson said. “I believe Kurt Zellers would be a fantastic governor and I plan to support him as a volunteer advisor.”
Her last day with the House is Feb. 3.
Anderson has been with the House for seven years, gaining a reputation as a tough, but dogged administrator of the GOP caucus.
Her departure will come less than a month before the upcoming legislative session, a crucial time for Republicans as they try to win back control of the state House.
Anderson played a key role in helping direct former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's win of the Republican endorsement for governor in 2002. She helped lead a brutal floor fight that dragged into the early morning hours.
After his victory, Pawlenty made Anderson an assistant education commissioner, a position she held before moving over to the state House.
Gambling opponents stepped up criticism of the Minnesota State Lottery on Thursday as it expands to offer scratch-off lottery tickets for sale on its website.
“Our state should not be involved in predatory gambling by encouraging families to take money from Main Street and blow it on Easy Street,” said Autumn Leva, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Family Council.
Lottery officials continue to quietly expand online offerings in what they hope will become an explosive area of growth for the state-backed gambling franchise.
The lottery’s expansion comes as a coalition of well-organized and well-financed gambling opponents have successfully beaten back numerous new gambling proposals at the Capitol, from a downtown casino to Las Vegas-style slot machines at horse racing tracks.
Lottery officials contend that state law dictates that they do not need legislative approval to expand online gambling options. Lottery officials routinely testify at legislative hearings about their new ventures, but they do not seek a vote of approval.
“The Lottery’s unilateral decision to expand online, without legislative approval … is an affront to the legislative process,” said Jack Meeks, president of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion.
The head of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota challenged lottery officials to allow lawmakers to challenge their expansion efforts. “If the Lottery does not share our genuine apprehension of online gaming being detrimental to Minnesota citizens, they should have no problem successfully navigating the legislative process.”
Online gambling made up less than 1 percent of the state's $560 million lottery business last year. But lottery sales have remained strong, having increased overall revenue for each of the last six years, even during the Great Recession.
Lottery aficionados will have their choice of a host of online scratch-off lottery games, digital replicas of the actual paper lottery tickets they now buy at retailers. Rather than scratching off the ticket with a coin, the customer uses a mouse and a cursor.
Online players can bet up to $50 a week, and problem gamblers can block themselves from the site. The lottery has several ways of ensuring customers are old enough to play and geo-locators to make sure they are in Minnesota.
The push into online gambling began during Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration has showed no signs of slowing under DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.